I touched on this subject in the August issue and have since been responding to questions regarding how to properly employ kaizen in the change process. First of all, let's put the term in its proper context. Kaizen is a Japanese word that literally means incremental continuous improvement.

Next, it's important to remember that change is not an event, it's a process. Combining the two points leads me to the conclusion that the term "kaizen event" is an oxymoron. Incremental continuous improvement occurs over an extended time and therefore shouldn't be considered something that happens once or even once in a while. That isn't to say that there isn't a place in the lean journey for radical change, but if your lean initiative is based solely on kaizen events, success will be limited and you may wind up creating additional waste by expending valuable resources in an area that doesn't align with the objectives.

Simply a lean tool

There are a number of companies in our industry that rely solely on kaizen events for their lean initiative. I'm often asked to quantify the number of kaizen events that I've facilitated in the past year as a measure of how good my lean experience is. My response is that kaizen events are simply a lean tool and not a means to the end of the journey. The measures of a successful lean initiative should be far more comprehensive. Those measures should include such other tools as inventory reduction, on-time order completion, equipment up-time, rework reduction, increased throughput per direct labor person and a reduction in the number of engineering changes related to new product introductions.

So, how can kaizen events be blended into the lean initiative in a balanced manner? It has been my experience that the most beneficial results are achieved when kaizen events are deployed as a problem-solving tool in only the most urgent situations. Positive results for some of the above measures, such as reducing rework, might best be achieved through an event, but only if rework is so out of control that the company is in jeopardy of losing a valued customer if action isn't taken immediately. Another critical time would be a product recall for a severely defective process. A kaizen event will help participants quickly develop alternatives.

The employment of kaizen events becomes counter-productive when the results could have been achieved by simply tasking a team with a short-term objective. One example that I experienced on a continual basis was supervisors requesting a kaizen event to refine or redo standard work for their operators. Standard work should be developed and maintained by the people who interact with the process. It should not be something so urgent that it requires a radical problem-solving activity.

A kaizen team's time would be better utilized responding to an objective of increasing throughput in upholstery by 25 percent. The results of that kaizen event might include a review of standard work, but it would also include set-up reduction, reduction of WIP, teaming or team development and other forms of waste reduction.

If your company is locked into the kaizen event process, at least make sure the events are organized for success, and that you maximize participation across the organization. As you may know, a kaizen event is usually a five-day, highly focused activity that requires the participants to shed all other activity during that time. That's a good thing because it eliminates distractions.

However, who are the people usually called upon to participate? Most likely it's the same core group event after event. The core group may be augmented from time to time by one or two other people, but that can hardly be classified as maximizing participation across the organization.

Cross-functional teams

The kaizen sponsor should insist that a cross-functional team is assembled to ensure success. Team members should come from all areas of the operation and not just from the affected process. Include people who have no prior knowledge of the process for the fresh pair of eyes they will bring to the team. The first day is to be devoted to lean training so all participants have a thorough understanding of what constitutes waste. If you don't rotate the entire organization through at least one kaizen event, a great training opportunity will be lost.

To properly gather information, the team needs to walk the process being evaluated rather than rely on tribal knowledge or perceptions from other team members. Personal observations, time studies and video are the best methods for gathering meaningful information.

Value stream mapping

Team members also need to create a value stream map that includes all of the communication links and interactions in the supply chain of the process. If your company doesn't have a value stream map tool that can be shared by everyone in the organization, check the FDM archives for articles pertaining to value stream mapping. Data collection for informed decision making is the key to success for any kaizen event.

Even though I have experience facilitating kaizen events and use them in my work, I don't allow that lean tool to dominate the change process. A kaizen event is simply another tool in the lean toolbox. Used wisely, and in the proper proportion, it can add a new dimension to your lean journey. However, make sure you don't lean on it for the entire trip or you will quickly wear out its effectiveness.

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