Kaizen events: good thing or bad thing for Lean Transformation?

The Lean Edge: “Kaizen events: good thing or bad thing? In what cases do kaizen events help and when do they hinder? How to best use kaizen events to leverage results and support the lean culture?”

Daniel Jones comments on the latest Lean Edge question

As with all Lean tools and techniques their effectiveness depends on how they are used. I helped to introduce Five-day Kaizen events into the UK and later to Europe and they proved to be very powerful in demonstrating the potential for improving work and eliminating waste. In particular they helped Lean pioneers learn what really goes on at their front lines so they could become more effective Lean leaders.

I also remember falling asleep in a dreadful report-out from several Kaizen events in one hospital, the last of which was about the process for changing a lightbulb! I kid you not, the consultants wedded to Kaizen events had run out of useful problems to tackle. While the results were disappointing the fire and passion that comes from teams reporting on their events was gone, they were just going through the motions and simply doing what the consultants told them to. Not surprisingly this Lean transformation ultimately ran into the sand. A real shame and a missed opportunity.

Over the years I have seen many Lean transformations, some of the most successful used Kaizen events but other success stories never used them at all. There is no correlation between using Kaizen events or not and successful or unsuccessful outcomes. Both the 16 week model line programmes and Five-day Kaizen events make sense for the development and deployment of consulting resources. Which is why consultants love them. Whether the are the right thing to do in a specific situation is another matter.

In my experience Kaizen events can be most useful in creating a demonstration effect and creating a pull from the rest of the organisation. They are also very useful in areas where the work and related problems are unclear to management. And in critical areas where you need to deepen team based problem solving capabilities. But doing them, or any Lean tool, everywhere to meet some arbitrary Kaizen involvement target is a nonsense.

Surely the ultimate purpose of all continuous improvement activities is daily Kaizen by everyone everywhere. Events can be a powerful and dramatic way of starting this journey, but only if they are followed up frequently with standard work and standard management. Occasional bursts of Kaizen workshops every six months or so are unlikely to be enough to build the habits and team based capabilities to solve ever more difficult problems.

I am also struck by the difference in learning that comes from workshops led by those who have held real team and line management responsibilities rather than improvement staff who only have consulting or teaching experience. Workshops are as much about managers learning how to improve front line management as they are about engaging front line staff. A great trick is to involve the Finance staff in such events, for them to learn where the money actually goes!

So what is the problem you are trying to solve, is a Kaizen event the right way of addressing it and what is management going to do to follow up to ensure the lessons are learnt and built upon? There is no generic answer to these questions, you have to figure them out for yourself.