Kaizen is not to improve everything

August 21, 2012 (edited 18 aug 2015)

One definition of Kaizen is: "...that the entire organization constantly works together to bring about improvements without the need for major investment. " (Masaaki Imai)

The idea sounds good enough, and ought to be obvious to all organizations. But why do so few succeed?

One of the reasons that many ignore is that we must first establish one thing: What exactly would be an improvement? In which direction is the company moving?

It is not sufficient to say that the aim is to achieve a return of 15% on capital invested. Return on investments may be a relevant goal for the shareholders, but if we break this down it only means that we should base all calculations on costs. At worst we could end up with an organization that becomes skilled at investment calculations instead of working on improving the business.

Instead, improvement initiatives should be directed at one or a few guiding principles or visions. Disciplines within which we have defined that the company shall be world leaders, and about which there is no discussion as to whether it should be introduced or not:

Shall we have zero accidents?

Should we have one-piece-flow?

Shall we have the fastest product introduction?

Perhaps 100 % value added work?

Zero rejects?

...or towards what should we be working?

Why are clear guiding principles important?

The aim is to steer the debate away from "Should we do it?" to "What are the obstacles in the way of our success?". If the organization is going to be the world leader in a field we cannot waste time on calculations and internal politics!

Compare how we reason in questions of safety. Once we have identified an unsafe situation, we seldom calculate what the cost of an accident would be and compare it with the size of the investment. Instead we discuss the different ways of minimizing the risk – should we carry out a major modification, or perhaps it would be better to introduce protective equipment? Since most worksites do not accept accidents, we can devote our time to solving the problem instead of to time-consuming "cost-benefit analyzes".

We should treat our guiding principles in the same way. If everyone knows that the end objective is, for example, zero rejects, we will not spend time discussing whether it is worthwhile doing something about a quality problem. Instead, we would discuss whether our first proposals to solve the problem were sufficient or whether we need a better solution.

The traditional approach to problem-solving

We often tackle the big and important problems, believing that these are the most important to the company.

We set up project teams, perhaps design experiments and statistical analyzes. In some cases, this can be justified but all too often our efforts are ineffective, and progress is slow. One of the reasons for this is that we devote a lot of time discussing and analyzing the nature of the problem, instead of acting, evaluating results and developing further.

If we instead had the principle that "no fault is too small, ALL faults are significant" we would avoid this type of discussion. We begin to act, learn, and can then move forward.

Problem-solving needs practice

One cannot become proficient at problem-solving by taking a "black-belt course" or "A3 course". This type of training can provide considerable knowledge but to become proficient one needs practical experience. Doing Kaizen is more effective than training. By solving some simple problems, but systematically and thoroughly, promotes genuine learning about our organization and about the art of problem-solving itself.

By becoming skilled at solving many small problems the organization realizes when it is time to introduce more advanced techniques such as statistical analyzes – we learn to adapt the available tools to what is required in reality.

The art of doing one thing at a time

Unlike our traditional approach to problem-solving, Kaizen does not entail drawing up long "to-do lists" that are then worked through. The aim is, instead, to do only one thing at a time to address an identified problem, evaluate the result and only then take the next step. In an organization that does not use the Kaizen method, we try to sweep the problem under the carpet for as long as possible. When this cannot be done any longer, we introduce some actions, often simultaneously. The problem with our normal way of working is that, even if the problem is solved in the short term, we have learnt nothing from the experience and will be equally perplexed the next time something similar happens.

Working with Kaizen, systematically tackling one thing at a time, can be perceived to be slow, but in this way we continually learn about our organization and get closer to achieving our objectives.

By Oskar Olofsson