One of the many criticisms of the kaizen event approach to implementing lean is its insistence on delivering results in the form of visible changes within the 3-day to 5-day format. When proper preparation has been done and the kaizen event is properly executed, it can be exhilarating for the people involved. When not, the push to make visible change during this short period of time can feel forced, stressful and counterproductive. When I was working closely with Japanese consultants who acted as sensei, or coach, to kaizen events within American companies, they understood this. When I witnessed a kaizen event that did not deliver visible results, it was always because of poor preparation, project scoping, stakeholder communication etc. and never because of consultant’s skill or the lack of a technical solution to the challenge at hand via the use of lean methods and tools.
The insistence on visible results within a week often involved the relocation of heavy industrial machines to new layout with better material flow, the removal and rearrangement of materials in a warehouse or the creation of visual performance boards, signals and triggers for problem response. By themselves, these things do not inherently require that changes are made within a 5-day window or less. It is not as though we are transplanting a human organ, replanting a tree or cleaning the hotel room before the arrival of the next guest. Arguably the same performance result could be achieved with a kaizen event (or improvement project by any name) stretched over several weeks. Why, then, this insistence on 5 days or fewer by the Japanese consultants? I observed several reasons.
The first and most obvious reason is that there are 5 billable consulting days between every pair of weekends. It is not cost efficient for the consultants to stay over a weekend and rejoin a kaizen project that lasts 7 or 8 days, since the odd days in the second week are not salable. In reality, these consultant did stay on with some companies for weeks at a time, following up with the previous weeks’ kaizen event teams even while launching new ones each week. The second reason was that from customer point of view, inviting the Japanese consultants in for the kaizen events allowed them to make audacious and bold changes that the leadership would otherwise not have had the courage or sometimes the technical know-how to make. The intensity of 5 days and insistence on visible changes was due in part to the feeling that, “Now is our chance to make the changes that we’ve always wanted,” on the part of the team members as well as “We better get this done while we have the top management’s attention and support” on the part of the management. Both of these point to dysfunctions within the organizational culture which must be addressed with more than just kaizen events, as I have also pointed out in my book. But more than either of these was a third reason that was often explicitly spoken by the Japanese sensei:
“To change the mindset, you must change the scenery.”
This sounds better in the original (ishiki wo kaeru niwa keshiki wo kaeru) due to the rhyming of the words for mindset (ishiki) and scenery (keshiki).
I was reminded of this while reading an article recently on What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits, I realized that my understanding with the above statement as a reason for making visible changes during a kaizen event has been a bit shallow. The article explained that U.S. soldiers who became addicted to heroin while in Vietnam and went through rehab before returning to the USA had a remarkably low relapse rate of 5%. This compares to relapse rates of the general population in the high 70% range or more. The accepted theory at the time for addiction treatment was to change people’s goals and intentions in order to change their bad habits. What researchers found was that this approach worked for behaviors that were infrequent, and therefore not strongly ingrained. For strongly ingrained behaviors that are repeated often within the same setting, behavior change does not follow even if the goals and intentions are changed. Changing the mindset does not change the behavior, when the environment with its various behavior triggers, remains unchanged.
The article offers hope in battling bad behaviors. We can do this by altering or disrupting in some small way the environment that enables the bad behavior:
“Even small changes can help — like eating the ice cream with your nondominant hand. What this does is disrupt the learned body sequence that’s driving the behavior, which allows your conscious mind to come back online and reassert control.”
Lean management implicitly and heavily relies on disrupting the bad behaviors which create a negative culture and affect people’s mindsets. Visible parts of our culture, called artifacts, such as the corner office or the untouchable finished goods for just-in-case sales or the wall recognizing improvement ideas, play a very large role in enabling or obstructing lean management. These are part of the environment and act as triggers to reinforce behaviors.
The article made me recall an experience of observing a case of “Change the scenery to change the mindset” at a logistics company. It had been family-owned, but when my team was called in it had been recently sold to an outside investor, and new operations managers with lean experience had been assigned to turn things around. We were told that the previous leadership team had been tyrannical, and we could see evidence of neglect throughout the facility, and some sketchy business practices came to light when diving in a bit deeper. The people were ready for change and thrived after receiving some direction, a little education and a lot of empowerment. The head of this facility had been fired, and the deputy operations manager, whom we will call Mr. B, had been reassigned and sent away to run their new operation in California. During one of the kaizen workshops, we redesigned some workflows that affected multiple distribution centers and needed Mr. B to come back east to join the workshop. This caused fear and concern among the team members, who had worked under Mr. B the traditional manager. Everyone was in for a huge surprise when the Mr. B who joined the team was the very model of a kind, thoughtful, open-minded and respectful leader during the workshop. Later, stories spread that one of Mr. B’s first acts at the California warehouse had been literally handing out candy bars to his employees. His former subordinates at the old warehouse could not stop talking about this. The change in behavior was unimaginable to them, shocking even, and only believable at all because of Mr. B’s good behavior which they had recently experienced during the kaizen workshop.
In light of the insight from the heroin addiction article about bad behaviors, the environment and small disruptions to learned behaviors, Mr. B’s transformation makes more sense. When he had been the deputy operations manager at the east coast warehouse, Mr. B had been working under a tyrant. Mr. B followed his previous leader’s management style. He was in a low-respect, high stress, top-down control environment. The physical environment of the disorganized warehouse, the body language of the people, and the barked orders by managers no doubt reinforced Mr. B’s tyrannical behavior. When he moved to sunny California, he was in a new environment. His former boss was gone from the company, and Mr. B was free of behavior triggers associated with that relationship. He had the good sense not to fall back into his old behaviors, and instead he began to make new connections, both with his the people in environment and among the neurons in his brain. When he brought candy bars for everyone, perhaps this was a small way to disrupt his own negative learned body sequences as a long-time warehouse manager.
What I know now is that changing the scenery is necessary but not sufficient to change mindsets. We must change the environment also in order to change the mindset. This does not always require moving to across the country. The environment is full of various triggers such as visible artifacts of the culture, the compensation systems, the negative social relationships, the language we use, the stories we tell, anything that reinforces the undesired behaviors. These must be changed, visibly. The first small step is to become aware of this environment and to select the smallest change we can make in a positive direction. In some language there must be a more elegant way to say, “Small good changes bring more small good changes.”