There are no big problems, just a lot of little problems.
– Henry Ford
Kaizen is probably the most important concept in the Toyota Production System, and was brought to the West in 1986 when Masaaki Imai wrote Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Success. The word kaizen can be broken into its two components: kai, meaning “change,” and zen, meaning “good.”
Although kaizen is generally thought of in terms of large numbers of small improvements, creating a large overall change. It is important to understand that this is not a restriction. In fact, kaizen activities performed at a higher or broader level by management can have a very large impact. Kaizen can be many small activities by individuals, small team-based ongoing activities, focused events of several days to make rapid, significant improvements, and large improvement projects driven by executive staff.
In most traditional companies, problem solving and improvement happens by having a team of mostly salaried people carve an hour or two a week out of their schedules. The first several weeks are spent discussing the problem, typically from a conference room, then brainstorming ideas for the change or improvement, and perhaps a year later some change is happening. Along the way people have left the team and, most importantly, the problem has remained.
With kaizen less time is spent planning and more time experimenting. The planning takes place at the gemba, typically by the people directly involved in the process. These people have a better understanding of the process, and by including them in the kaizen ownership is created. Each individual experiment is relatively small, thereby resulting in low risk of negative impact. However the positive results, especially learning, from continually planning, doing, studying, and revising create large cumulative effects over time.
In contrast to the individual or small team kaizen activity with small experiments, Lean organization generally promote what are called kaizen events. These are generally three to five days long, with the team fully dedicated to the activity. The first day is spent planning, then a couple days doing, then finally studying and acting on the results. Kaizen events can create very significant improvement in a short period of time. They are especially effective when someone from the senior leadership team helps facilitate the event as traditional barriers such as cost and approvals to purchase equipment or modify processes are expedited.
Kaizen and kaizen events follow the PDSA cycle we previously discussed. The steps are:
- Define the problem
- Document the current state
- Determine the desired future state with measurable targets
- Identify solutions or improvements
- Develop the plan
- Implement the plan
- Study the results and compare to the plan, targets, and desired future state
- Document the change in standard work, or use what was learned to create the next experiment
- Document and publicize the kaizen activity
It’s important to not sacrifice time for perfection. Remember, the goal is to create ongoing incremental improvements rapidly, not the perfect solution at one time.
The last step of documenting and publicizing the kaizen activity is important. Many Lean organizations have kaizen boards, kaizen newspapers, or kaizen “wall of fame” areas where such activities are made visible. This is both motivating to others and can inspire other ideas for improvement.
The role of the leader in kaizen is critical. You must demonstrate and explain why kaizen is important for your organization. Ask for kaizen activity and support it by providing time, training, and mentoring. You should lead by example by personally leading kaizen activities – both big and small. What a great way to get to know the folks at the gemba, and also teach them about PDSA and improvement methods! As your leadership team to do the same. Be careful about creating arbitrary goals for the number of kaizen activities – instead create a culture where kaizen is supported. Finally, celebrate kaizen, especially when learning occurs from failure. Learning is an improvement in itself.