The Power of Kaizen

April 1, 2005
By Darren Dolcemascolo

Are Kaizen events effective? Based on the successes observed in companies like Toyota and countless other “lean” companies such as Wiremold, Pratt & Whitney, and others that have been studied by lean gurus over the years; kaizen events are very effective and very powerful. However, some organizations have failed at implementing lean and kaizen events. What is the source of the power seen in successful kaizen events? Part of the reason Kaizen events are powerful is because they are carefully selected and planned. While we have addressed these important issues in other articles, there is one single factor that contributes more to the power behind kaizen than any other: people! While that may sound trite, people are in fact the power behind kaizen. Do “better” people result in “better” kaizen events? No. Toyota, by far the most successful of all “lean” companies and the inventor of lean, does not believe in hiring the so-called superstars. Toyota in Japan generally hires people directly out of school to avoid their having to “un-learn” bad habits. They believe in developing exceptional people around a lean culture. The lean culture is developed through basically five key areas:

Training: All new employees should be trained in the lean system being employed at the company. Other employees should receive on-going training. Some of this training will happen during Kaizen events. Toyota trains all of its employees in its system; this is also part of their employee orientation.

Lay-off Policy: At a successful lean organization, people cannot lose their jobs due to lean successes. If employees even suspect that they might lose their jobs due to kaizen event improvements, they will not contribute to the best of their ability. One of my colleagues visited a manufacturer in the northwestern U.S. that employs these principles. They have Kaizen events happening nearly every week. Labor requirements are reduced in almost every kaizen activity; “displaced” individuals are never laid off. They are placed in a continuous improvement or kaizen office, where they contribute to further improvements around the plant. As demand increases, they are brought back into a production function. (Recall that a growth strategy must be part of lean since lean frees up resources.)

Incentives/Metrics: Improvements must have incentive at all levels. Operators must have incentive to make improvement suggestions (and implement). Management and support personnel must have incentives to make productivity and quality improvements through kaizen. Where many companies fail is that they measure and provide incentives to employees based on one standard (such as shipping out product), but they expect continuous improvement. This does not work: incentives must be in line with expectations. If a company expects continuous improvement, it must provide incentives. Incentives can range from recognition to monetary rewards.

Team Environment: Teamwork is important, but it is often misunderstood. Following is what one American executive at Toyota said regarding teamwork:

“Respect for people and a constant challenging to do better- are these contradictory? Respect for people means respect for the mind and capability. You do not expect them to waste their time. You respect the capability of the people. Americans think teamwork is about you liking me and I liking you. Mutual respect and trust means I trust and respect that you will do your job so that we are successful as a company. It does not mean that we just love each other.” (The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker, page 184)

At Toyota, all levels of the organizations are respected; each part of the team has a particular job that contributes to the company’s success. Additionally, each person is respected for his or her mind and ideas as well.

Empowerment: On the list of words that have been overused, “empowerment” is near the top. To empower means to enable. A lean organization must enable its employees to make improvements. Too often, suggestion programs have failed because people are asked to implement “other people’s” ideas. One of the most overlooked elements of a lean implementation is empowering employees. Employees need to be able to suggest and implement their ideas.

If a lean culture is implemented as described above, kaizen events will be successful. Employees on kaizen teams will:

  • Have the incentive to succeed.
  • Have the necessary training to succeed.
  • Not worry that they may be working themselves out of a job.
  • Believe that they are important to the success of the organization.
  • Believe that their ideas are respected and wanted.
  • Therefore, employees will inevitably succeed. The power of kaizen is in the people.

    Click here to subscribe to our free e-newsletter Learning to Lean and receive a free template plus articles and videos each month.