Generating Ideas: Kaizen and Lean Culture

August 1, 2014
By Darren Dolcemascolo

About 1 year ago, I wrote an article discussing lean culture versus tools. Within the lean community, there are many debates. Many are debates about semantics and terminology; others are debates about Toyota and the history of lean. One of the most interesting debates is about culture. It seems that almost everyone agrees that the "people side of lean" is the most important. "Getting everyone involved in the lean effort is key to success" is a truism in such discussions. In this article, I want to discuss what a lean culture is, and some steps to getting there.

Regarding my article from a year ago, I stated that a lean culture is "a culture in which people think and behave in ways that move an organization toward providing value to the customer, eliminating waste in their value streams utilzing the principles of flow and pull, and continuously seeking perfection."

You might quibble with the details of this statement, but, if you agree that flowing value to the customer is what lean is about, then you would likely agree with this definition. The real issue is: "How does one go about creating a lean culture?"

Very often, you will hear that a lean culture is created by creating a mechanism for all employees, particularly front line workers to generate and implement ideas. I believe there is truth to this, but the devil is in the details. General improvement programs have had mixed results in my experience. Usually, there are a lot of ideas generated early in the program, but it soon diminishes to a trickle. And many of the ideas are undirected.

Let's not throw away the baby with the bathwater. While employee imrpovement idea programs on their own will not create a lean culture, they are important. I believe the missing link to these programs is focus. Most of the programs ask employees to "give us your ideas for improvement." Some ask the employee to implement the idea and even provide rewards. But there is no goal or target. The focus should be to generate ideas that reach toward a target condition. In other words, I go back to what I believe to be the biggest breakthrough in lean thinking since Value Stream Mapping, and that is the improvement kata and it's five questions:

What is the target condition?

What is the actual condition now?

What are the obstacles? Which one are you working on now?

What is your next step?

When can we go and see what you've learned from taking that step?

If everyone was focused on reaching the next target, then their ideas would be more focused. And there would likely be more ideas as well because employees would have an end in mind.

How might this work in practice? Well, if you know about the improvement kata, you would know that the Team Leader or Supervisor (depending on your organization's terminology) would be responsible for working toward a target condition. Even though the front line employees would not be primarily responsible, there is no reason that they cannot be made aware of the target condition. The A-3, if that is what you choose to utilize in working toward the target, should be visible to all of the front line employees and they should know what the next target condition to be achieved is. If this is the case, the right kind of ideas will flow from those who are experiencing the problems/obstacles that are in the way of reaching the target condition.

In summary, lean culture has been a buzzword for quite a long time, but, to date, very few have achieved it. I believe the improvement kata methodology and thinking are the key to creating a culture of continuous improvement.

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