A particular Japanese word has been on my mind a lot lately. Yokoten means “horizontal deployment” and refers to the practice of copying good results of kaizen in one area to other areas. Yokoten applies more broadly to copying product design ideas as well as better practices in general. “Best practice sharing” comes close to the meaning of yokoten. In modern business that phrase often means e-mailing PowerPoint presentations, comparing results between divisions and debating the differences between various round fruits. What sets yokoten apart and persuades me to retain the Japanese is the fact that this 6-letter word contains not only the practice of copying better practices (there is never best) but also the culture of “go see” information sharing between departments, and crucially that this sharing includes both successes and failures.
Like many Japanese words we find within the lean lexicon the phrase yokotenkai is in common use in the language, outside of the community of people who practice kaizen (as not all Japanese firms do). We can do “yokoten of yokoten” by studying Toyota and how they do it. They began 60 years ago when their managers and engineers traveled to the USA to learn from leading American manufacturers. At Toyota today the expectation is that kaizen is not complete until yokoten is confirmed and the learning is shared with others. Yokoten is part of the culture. It may not be too strong to say that it is a job requirement.
Kaizen must result in a standard, and yokoten means standards must be copied by others. However it is not enough to copy good kaizens as is, one must adapt and improve the learning for one’s own process. Yokoten is not only to copy the physical best practice process but also the thinking that resulted in success and any background information (how it was achieved).
Within the 8 step practical problem solving process known as TBP (Toyota Business Practice) the yokoten activity happens in step 8.
1. Clarify the problem
2. Break down the problem
3. Set a target
4. Analyze the root cause
5. Develop countermeasures
6. See countermeasures through
7. Evaluate both results and process
8. Standardize successes, learn from failures
Within the PDCA cycle yokoten happens in the Act (A) stage, corresponding to step 8 above.
Yokoten is on my mind recently because I am faced with an epic opportunity to strengthen the yokoten culture within my new company, Kaizen Institute. We are 350+ people with offices in 27 countries, active in more than 40. We are far from perfect but collectively we are an organization full of awesome half-buried treasures. My colleagues have shared some fantastic examples of taking kaizen culture deeply into healthcare, retail, government, hotels, banks, non-profits and of course various manufacturing industries, all over the world. While these examples are inspiring, the opportunity to take the successful consulting business management practices from one business unit to another is what truly excites me. This will not be easy, and will require more than simply translating procedure books and checklists. Just as Toyota has learned, it is not enough to copy the result of good kaizen, we must also copy the thinking that resulted in the good kaizen. It’s not only a great opportunity for us; with a company name like Kaizen, not doing aggressive yokoten would be an integrity issue.
Yokoten is a essential part of long-term success in a lean culture, but can also have a big impact on short-term results. Yokoten is a success multiplier. Perform a good kaizen and copy the results, and you immediately duplicate the impact. Yet we don’t hear so much about yokoten. Why is this? In a typical company the best practices can become lost among the noise, buried beneath the day-to-day fire-fighting or even deliberately hidden from others in to make one’s own self or group look good. There may be localized incentives in place that prevent yokoten from happening. There are other obstacles to yokoten, including a lack of documented standard as a result of kaizen, weak “go see” culture, or no metrics or ways to agree on what is in fact a better practice.
Once these cultural issues are addressed the answer to “how to do yokoten?” becomes relatively simple and can be summarized in one word: communication. Senior leaders must actively go see, recognize good work and require others to go see. Management must organize presentations of successful kaizen projects and invite colleagues to attend and learn. Team and department leaders must actively engage members in studying kaizen examples, motivating them to start kaizen on their own. Project leaders and continuous improvement professionals must put yokoten on their checklists and follow up rigorously.
There is another Japanese phrase which is often associated with building a yokoten culture. It is kaze toushi ( 風通し ) and literally means “ventilation” or “wind blowing through” but refers to the openness or ease of communication within an organization. When this ventilation or information flow is poor, yokoten does not happen. The way to do yokoten is just to start sharing better practices and asking to learn from others. As behaviors, norms and incentives are identified that block the information flow and sharing of success and failure, this becomes an opportunity for kaizen at the organizational or system level. That is a particularly rich are for yokoten, and one I am hoping to tackle very soon at my company.