How to Solve Hard Problems with Kaizen Events

Many people are familiar with kaizen as a philosophy and practice of continuous improvement based on making many small changes repeatedly towards a long-term ideal. Often this takes the form of a creative idea suggestion scheme, a simple kaizen wall of fame, or an effort of the 2-second lean variety.

Kaizen in its simplest form is an essential element of business excellence. However, it should not be the only way we build a culture of continuous improvement. One notable practice is the kaizen event, whose format and characteristics help people and organizations solve some of the harder problems.

Tackle the Hard Tasks

The small-and-simple kaizen approach is great for lowering the barrier to getting started. It’s a method that’s available to everyone with minimal training or administration. Compared to its cost, it can bring great benefits both in terms of practical improvements and people’s enthusiasm for making improvements to their work. Making progress in solving many simple problems boosts motivation and gives people a sense of control and agency.

However, there is a downside to an emphasis on small and simple problems. If we are not careful, we teach our brains to do a cost-benefit analysis of the outcome versus the projected time investment, avoiding harder problems as a result. This is not a problem until we’ve fixed many of the small, easy problems and we’re faced with bigger, more complex ones. Sometimes it leads people to pursue easy problems that aren’t important, distractions off of the continuous improvement path.

We get better by stretching our minds and challenging our skills, learning from failure. When used as vehicles to solve complex problems, kaizen events can involve breaking through literal walls as well as conceptual ones. This resets our understanding of what’s possible with kaizen, both in the mental and physical sense.

Borrow Insights and Ideas

For the most part, kaizen suggestions are individual efforts. Simple problems of the “fix what bugs you” type may have obvious solutions. Or at least, they may reveal themselves through trial and error. By definition, this is not so for complex problems that have multiple interacting causes. When solving hard problems, we can borrow the words of President Woodrow Wilson, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”

Kaizen events are cross-functional team efforts for this reason. Interacting with others helps people view a problem in new ways. Team members with diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, and ways of thinking help us break out of our paradigms. When tackling complex problems, it’s often especially important for us to get unstuck in our ways.

Minimize Distractions to Reduce Cognitive Load

People are encouraged to think of kaizen suggestions and 2-second lean-type improvements within the course of their daily work. It’s rare to have a special time or occasion for them. These ideas may be reviewed or coached by a team leader, but this tends to be ad hoc. Put another way, the act of doing simple kaizen is an interruption to routine work. It breaks our flow. It requires context switching. On the one hand, it can feel great to have an inspired idea and be allowed to stop our work to write it down or even try it out. On the other hand, over the years the expectation to keep extracting these ideas from within our daily work can become a burden and distraction.

When working on multiple tasks at once or switching between them, our productivity and quality suffer. Tasks compete for shared resources such as attention and working memory. When this cognitive load is too great, we become less effective. This is more so when tasks are complex. The kaizen event typically focuses a team on problem solving for consecutive days, often a week. This has the effect of minimizing interference from multi-tasking, allowing people to make more progress on the complex problem in focus.

Visualize the Problem Structure

Although not unique to kaizen events, the practice of visualizing the problem structure is essential for solving complex problems. Simpler problems often don’t require this. But too often it’s skipped even when visualization would be helpful. The bias towards quick and easy can prevent organizations from learning how to create value stream maps, draw cause and effect diagrams, make a business model canvas, or visualize process flowcharts.

Whatever the visualization method, team members spend time during kaizen events to arrive at a common understanding of the problem. They do this by creating the picture together, drawing on data, gathering different perspectives and experiences, and laying out a logical plan of attack. When we rely only on preconceived solutions, our efforts may lead to dead ends. When we have a visual breakdown of the problem, we can revisit and reframe the problem to take a different approach, even when we get stuck.

Practice Discontinuous Improvement

It’s not realistic or helpful to insist on getting everything done at once. It’s also not realistic to expect that we can solve complex problems organically over a long period of time by just stacking simple kaizens on top of each other. Not every complex problem will be solved over the course of a single week-long kaizen event. It’s not unusual for kaizen events to reveal new problems or opportunities, leaving unfinished work. Often, kaizen events are planned as a series of sprints forward, based on a master plan to transform a value stream.

By the strict definition, almost none of us can do continuous improvement. At best, our efforts are continual. But sometimes we need to get things done in a burst of activity, followed by a period of working at a slower and steadier pace. Taking breaks from difficult work allows us to recharge our mental energy. Often, people have new insights as they turn the problem over in their minds in the time and space in between the kaizen events.

Reinforce Good Problem-Solving Patterns

A big part of what makes kaizen events and similar rapid improvement workshops effective is their format. The team is cross-functional and diverse. The workshops are focused and intensive. The problems are challenging and meaningful. This allows us to concentrate our thinking on a problem and go deeper faster. Finding solutions to hard problems requires more than getting the best people in the room. We must follow a process, a structure, a pattern that helps reveal the path forward. Kaizen events are one way to do this. The exact format doesn’t matter as long as its characteristics help people succeed in working together to solve complex problems.

 

4 Comments

  1. Christopher Biggs

    May 17, 2021 - 8:14 am
    Reply

    Jon,
    This is a very well-written and mature approach to problem-solving. No longer are there roving bands of teachers who swoop in to solve complex problems. Rather, today’s complex environment requires a pragmatic approach to not solve all the problems simultaneously but to create a community vision and emerge into a data-based and process-centric standard work. There is much written about this in some of the new literature on left brain and right brain thinking. It’s when you get stuck in one mode that flow becomes constrained. Regards, Christopher

    • Jon Miller

      May 17, 2021 - 10:36 am
      Reply

      Thanks Christopher. I appreciate your comment. Best wishes. Jon

  2. Jonathan Wiederecht

    June 3, 2021 - 2:22 pm
    Reply

    Jon,
    Interesting discussion because there are some CI efforts where there are only Kaizen events and daily improvement activities are non-existent. In those situations, CI becomes “occasional improvement” at best, as manager are not willing to “invest” in multiple day improvement activities and the notion of daily improvement is lost on them. To your point, true CI is a combo platter – not one or the other. As always, thanks for sharing.
    Jon

  3. Joe

    June 3, 2021 - 6:04 pm
    Reply

    Great post, Jon! I’ll apply this with my problem-solving and I let you know about my improvements. 🙂

    Best regards!
    Joe

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