How to Unleash a Process Excellence "Revolution" (plus 4 reasons Kaizen fails)

I am often asked to recommend a tried and tested method to bring about a process excellence revolution within an organization. Senior Management teams ideally want a cost effective method that engages every member within the workforce. My answer to this query has not changed in the last decade. Without a shadow of doubt Kaizen remains my favorite method to bring about a quick "revolution "within an organization, engaging all hierarchies within the workforce.

However, often I am distressed to note that Kaizen typically connotes only an idea generation scheme in many companies. The typical thought is Kaizen runs for, say, 15 days, generates hundreds of ideas, the company then implements a few ideas creates a buzz and forgets about it for the rest of the year. That’s not Kaizen!!! Kaizen by it’s very meaning means "Continuous" improvement, which means that it is not a start and stop process.

Kaizen is defined as a system of continuous improvement which covers all aspects of an organization starting from quality, technology, processes, company culture, productivity, safety and leadership. It comes from the Japanese words ("kai") which means "change" or "to correct" and ("zen") which means "good". Kaizen was first implemented in several Japanese businesses after the Second World War, influenced in part by American business and quality management teachers who visited the country. It has since spread throughout the world and is now being implemented in many other countries across various lines of business.

Kaizen is a continual process, the purpose of which goes beyond simple productivity improvement. It is also a process that, when done correctly, empowers the workforce who are then involved in spotting waste in processes and eliminating hard work by using scientific techniques. Kaizen is a system that involves every employee - from upper management to the cleaning crew. Everyone is encouraged to come up with small improvement suggestions on a regular basis.

In most cases these are not ideas for major changes. The basic idea of Kaizen is small incremental changes on a regular basis which collectively results in massive improvements and benefits. These are typically ideas that do not result in too much capital expenditure and systemic changes to the organization. Kaizen is based on making little changes on a regular basis: always improving productivity, safety and effectiveness while reducing waste. Suggestions can be made related to all functions and departments within the organization.


How does an organization implement Kaizen?

There are 10 key steps to this process and they are:

Step #1: Training

The key issue is to select a small group of individuals to be trained as mentors who will also be the key person to select the team members.The training can consist of continuous improvement tools such as 7 quality control (QC) tools, understanding the seven types of waste, value stream mapping and process mapping techniques. These coupled must be coupled with the necessary change management skills to enable each trainee to implement sustainable improvement activities within an organization.

Step #2: Project Selection

The trainees undergoing Kaizen training can maximize learning if he/she can relate what they’re learning to a live project. Therefore, it is important that the delegate identify a problem area where the learning can be implemented. Such areas might include: areas with substantial work-in-progress; a process/ production area where significant bottlenecks or delays occur; areas where everything is a "mess" and/or quality or performance does not meet customer expectations; and/or areas that have significant market or financial impact. Once a suitable process is found, a more specific "waste elimination" problem within that area is chosen for the focus of the kaizen event.

Step #3: Team Selection

The team must start with subject matter experts from the targeted process’ area. But it should also be cross-functional and include process owners, finance & administration personnel, IT personnel and anyone who has pertinent knowledge of the project process.

Step #4: Value Stream Mapping

This is a lean manufacturing technique used to analyze and design the flow of materials and information required to bring a product or service to a consumer. The objective is to understand end to end process / information flow and to gauge the extent of value added steps (which is typically defined as work that customer is paying for) as opposed to non value added steps or waste.

Step #5: Process Mapping

The process map is more focused on one part of the overall process than the value stream map discussed above and provides more detail. When a team builds a process map it allows everyone to agree on the actual steps performed to produce the product or service. It’s a great tool for identifying non-value added process steps and reducing complexity.

Step #6: Developing Baseline Data

It is important to identify metrics for the targeted process. Once the metric is defined and a source of data is identified, the team needs to capture baseline data for the metrics in question. Only once current metric performance is established, can the team decide if the new process is significantly better than the older process.

Step #7: Conducting Time Study Analysis

This tool is used to collect and verify cycle time data relative to an operation or process. This provides for careful study of each aspect of the process and continues to contribute to root cause analysis.

Step #8: Developing & Implementing Continuous Improvement

This is where the team records the changes to be implemented resulting from the analysis of collected data and brainstorming. I have often used a simple action tracker which details the action identified, responsibility; timelines, status updates. The action tracker ensures traction and accountability for all identified interventions.

Step #9: Control phase

Along with implementation, the team should develop Control Plans so 30 to 60 days after implementation one can assess the impact of the process changes. A key part of a kaizen event is the follow-up activity that aims to ensure that improvements are sustained, and not just temporary. Metrics often include lead and cycle times, process defect rates, movement required, although the metrics vary when the targeted process is an administrative process.

Step #10: Incentivize good ideas

Finally an incentive scheme is put in place that provides suitable motivation to individuals to contribute to the effectiveness of their teams as well as the total company performance.

Why does Kaizen fail in some organizations?

Kaizen implementation can fail if the organization is not fully committed to making it the cornerstone of their strategy. Kaizen isn’t simply a set of tools for implementation: it is a long term mind-set in which every single employee is committed to making things better.

Reason #1. Kaizen is seen as a short term project

Kaizen needs to be a long term organizational strategy. I am not saying that the organization will not see quick results as well. Although the concept of kaizen is quite simple to understand, it is difficult to master and will need time before it is fully understood by all employees. The main problem with implementation is that often companies expect a quick turn around and impact on KPIs within a year. When that doesn’t appear, they write kaizen off as a failure. In reality, benefits will start to be felt in the small scale, before slowly propagating throughout the organization.

Reason #2: Kaizen is implemented in a heavily bureaucratic organization

Kaizen cannot succeed in an organization bogged down by a bureaucratic mind-set, filled with rules and procedures and people who would resist any sort of change. It will also fail where change is punished and blocked, whether formally or socially, decimating any incentive to improve.

Reason #3: Management pays lip service to Kaizen

Failure of Kaizen is also often seen in companies which profess to implement Kaizen but do not do so in the real spirit of the term. In fact, I have observed a few organizations that started a suggestion box schemes and called it Kaizen. The suggestion box was rarely checked, no training was given to employees about root cause analysis; PDCA Cycle; Visual controls etc. As a result none of the suggestions that came in were actually considered, nor were they actionable or could fix the problems at hand.

The importance of management support cannot be over emphasized: it is essential that management isn’t just fully on board, but essential that they want to fully embrace the long-term commitment of Kaizen to the organization. They need to pass on their enthusiasm and demonstrate that even they are continually looking for new and better ways of doing things.

Reason #4: Appropriate training on Kaizen isn’t provided

Kaizen will never work if people do not implement its full suite of tools and concepts, with sufficient training given to take advantage of them. All of the tools, especially the 5-why analysis and the mindset that everything can be improved, is an essential part

Kaizen is about everyone improving everything, not just a group doing all the work.