The Best Kaizen is Still Better Kaizen

By Jon Miller Published on October 1st, 2012

It’s surprising to be quoted, especially when I can find no memory or record of it. But I don’t disavow these words of mine from The Daily Kaizen blog brought to you by the lean senseis at Group Health Cooperative:

“Sometimes the best kaizen is no kaizen at all.”

I am afraid that the wrong lesson may have been taken from these words. Connor Shea writes:

So it is true that not every improvement needs to be done using an event to accomplish results. The constant necessity is that good thinkers acting bravely achieve great results. When leaders actively define standards, diligently create and implement standard work, and routinely check on adherence to standard work, improvement happens.

While what he says is true, whenever I speak of kaizen I do so in the broadest sense and not to imply that doing kaizen equals a kaizen event. Sometimes the best kaizen is no kaizen at all because a process should not be analyzed and and redesigned, it should simply be stopped, eliminated. The best improvement in some situations is to cease doing the work, rather than trying to improve it. Many of the practices within lean management such as 5S, kanban, andon, are simply ways of stopping.
“No kaizen at all” does not mean giving up, not trying to improve or a lack of effort. Instead it means putting down our process improvement mindset and tools, stepping back and agreeing “let’s stop doing that”. By not putting our energy into improving processes or systems that should be eliminated, we can focus our energies on more worthy improvements and innovations. This is the entire purpose of the “vital few” concept of selecting breakthrough initiatives in hoshin kanri. The best kaizen is still better kaizen, enabled by the deselection of the many trivial or unnecessary kaizens.
Stopping is the most effective practical response to the waste of processing a.k.a. the waste of over-processing. Many confuse “over-processing” to mean using excessive or inappropriate resources to perform a task, however the original meaning was “the waste of processing itself” as in “the process itself is not needed”. There is no sense in kaizening an unnecessary process any further than to agree to stop doing it.
I’ve heard this expressed in Japanese as 「止めるに勝る改善は無し」 yameru ni masaru kaizen wa nashi which means “There is no kaizen superior to ceasing (to do the process).” Someone at Toyota said that, possibly Taiichi Ohno. If I misapprehended its meaning, please explain.

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