The New Math of Daily Kaizen

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

The true meaning of kaizen, we like to say at our Institute, is to involve everyone everywhere in making improvements every day. Kaizen is not just about the 5-day rapid improvement events, although these can be great vehicles for bringing a cross-functional team together to quickly test ideas in practice. Kaizen is also not just about delegating responsibility for small improvements downwards while allowing leaders to focus on strategy and innovation. Kaizen is all of these things and more.

Many organizations succeed with kaizen in operations as other visible, discrete and repetitive processes within their business. Most are challenged when it comes to extending the continuous improvement culture to the indirect areas, back office and senior management. Achieving “everywhere kaizen” is no easy thing. Here is a quote from Masaaki Imai, author of the books Kaizen and Gemba Kaizen:

I have often come across a narrow understanding of JIT, one which focuses solely on supply delivery issues. Actually, JIT is far broader. It must cover the entire value chain from the origins of the raw material to the end user — and it should be implemented at every step in that value chain. And because JIT removes waste (remembering that unused, excessive inventory is considered waste), every process in the value chain needs to be flexible and able to respond within the time it takes for a customer to place an order. That’s true JIT.

This quote is from a 1997 article, back in the days before “lean” was a buzzword and our understanding of TPS was centered on our simplistic grasp of concepts such as JIT. Imai’s point is that the focus of flow improvement must be across the entire enterprise, what he calls “everywhere kaizen”.

While organizations pursuing lean and practicing kaizen may still fail to adequately demonstrate the respect for people principle, there is hardly a definition of kaizen that is not based on empowering and involving a wide array of people to convert problems into countermeasures. In the words of the 28th U.S. President Woodrow Wilson that capture the spirit of the leader dedicated to “everyone kaizen”:

I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.

Once again this “everybody kaizen” idea is well-understood and well-practices where it is practiced at all. The kaizen event-driven lean implementations do not truly practice kaizen, by our Institute definition. Improvements may be made, but there is no guarantee that the kaizen event approach is by design capable of involving everyone. On the opposite extreme there are organizations on the lean path who do no events at all but invest in employee suggestion programs and other team-based daily kaizen activities. While these may be more effective at achieving “everybody kaizen” there are challenges also.

When it comes to “every day kaizen” (as opposed to “everyday kaizen” which is something quite different) leaders pay much lip service. When it comes to true commitment and actions to make it a reality, we fall short. Leaders would love to see their people making improvements each and every day, with better performance always tomorrow than today, but very few are willing to allow people the time in each day to make improvements. A major cause of why we don’t invest in people as much as we should because of how we measure and reward leaders based on short-term financial performance. But reforming this cause is the big bang solution, a kaikaku rather than a kaizen. How can leaders make “every day kaizen” a reality?

In fact for leaders “every day” is more important than everywhere or everybody kaizen. Leaders have influence, if not a certain degree of power, over every place and every person within their organization. This is the very definition of a leader. They can order people in every department to join a kaizen event, participate in a suggestion program or otherwise tick the boxes of everybody and everywhere kaizen. But no no leader can be everywhere, everyday or personally follow and coach every person.

One of the reasons that success with lean favors small teams is that achieving kaizen everywhere by everybody every day requires organization sizes to be very small. This is due to the nature of time and space. A leader’s responsibility can expand across buildings, cities and continents. Everybody and everywhere are quantities that can grow and grow.

For most leaders, a large span represents power, prestige and success. Yet every leader has exactly the same amount of available time every day. There is an inverse relationship between the span of a leader’s authority and the chance of success with true kaizen. The only way a leader can be everywhere at once every day is if they are only in one place, within line of sight of their small team.

We can say “everyone everywhere does kaizen” once or twice per month and the first two conditions are satisfied. Bringing this degree of involvement to the 24-hour cycle puts a very severe time constraint on our activities. In fact the “day” unit of measurement is arbitrary; it is an artifact of our planet having only one sun, and that our planet rotates on its axis, creating a night and a day. In reality we should do kaizen at every opportunity, and for most of us this opportunity is at least every new day. For some of us it may be more frequent, even with every human interaction. It depends on the cycle of our work. But with respect to our planet, kaizen should be no less frequent than each day.

Every day kaizen is most important for leaders because it is the only part of the “every __ kaizen” which they can practice for themselves. Every day kaizen is the only way they can lead by example. Enabling or mandating everywhere and everyone kaizen is certainly part of the leader’s role, but these are a one-time decisions which must be checked, supported and followed through each day. The personal practice of every day kaizen by the leader is the glue that binds an organization to ongoing improvement. When the leader makes least one small improvement to the system each day, these actions speak louder than words. This gives others courage to do what is right. Daily kaizen by the leader naturally leads to kaizen by everyone and kaizen everywhere. Every day, or better yet “at every opportunity” is the most important element in true kaizen.

The mathematics of kaizen are interesting. The notion of everywhere kaizen is essentially additive. Once kaizen has begun at some point in the organization, it must be expanded to other points. The same is true for kaizen by every person. When kaizen is done in ways that it involves everybody and everywhere, but not on a daily basis, the gains from each additional person or area is additive. However, when even one person in one area is able to do kaizen every day, a curious thing happens. The impact is not additive. It is geometric, transformational.

If a person does no kaizen on day 1 and then does one kaizen on day 2, what is the difference? One, you may say. I would argue otherwise. The difference is infinite. One is infinitely more than zero. Mathematicians may beg to differ. This is more a statement about the nature of zero than the nature of one. The impact of one improvement per day by a leader is infinitely greater than zero, even when the rest of the organization has been recruited into team kaizen. And by demonstrating that we can and will do kaizen every day, we all become leaders. This is the new math of daily kaizen.

  1. John Santomer

    July 12, 2011 - 10:50 pm

    Dear Jon,
    If I were to compare the kaizen movement and the people who would initiate its inertia…there is one more thing that can be considered-the time it took for the entity to move from point 1 to point 2; no matter how small or big the distance.
    Consider people like objects of different shapes, a “square” would take more energy and effort to put in motion than a “rounded/circular” object. Less resistance and less effort is required to exert “sustaining” the thing in “kaizen” motion. Also, it would take less to sustain its motion as exhibited by a pendulum. Mindsets unlike physical shapes can change or “morph” from “squares” to “circulars”, the most mind boggling things are the reasons why a “square” would consciously choose to be immobile when all else points to the direction of the “True North”.

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