Sunday, July 1, 2012

Success With Kaizen Requires Thinking Small

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I read a whitepaper recently that touted the benefits of a kaizen process. The paper presented an example from a British company where an improvement project resulted in an annual savings to the organization of £1.2 million.  The point of the paper was to demonstrate the type of improvement that companies could achieve with an effective improvement process.

The unfortunate part of a story like this is that it creates the expectation that implementing a kaizen process will lead to million dollar improvements.  This is not the essence of a kaizen process and often leads to skepticism or disappointment and eventual abandonment of the effort.

Small Improvements by Everyone, Everyday

To be successful and sustaining, an objective of a kaizen process must be to get everyone involved in identifying and attacking waste. This means focusing on - and celebrating - the small improvements that result from the effort. Daily improvement will not happen, however, if the company's leaders are expecting and driving for the million dollar improvements.  People will not invest the time or effort necessary to implement a small improvement when it is not considered important by the company's leaders.

Will you ever get a million dollar improvement from a kaizen process?  Maybe, but it will be the result of a culture that enable ideas to flow and improvements to occur.  Keeping the process alive long enough to reap the benefits, though, requires celebrating the small improvements as much as the large ones.

In reality, a million one dollar ideas are much more likely to occur than a single one million dollar idea.  Because of this, the focus needs to be on coaching people to identify problems, address root causes, test countermeasures, and change standard work at a rapid pace.  Leaders need to be kaizen experts in this type of environment, and able to effectively coach team members in the improvement process.

Practice is the Best Training

As more improvements are made, people get better at solving problems.  The pace quickens, ideas get better, and morale improves.  When the focus is on large improvements versus the small ones, there are fewer projects and fewer opportunities to teach people how to solve problems.  The culture does not change because learning, if it does occur, it is at too slow of a pace to make much of a difference.

Small improvements are generally made very quickly, and tend to cost very little – if anything – to implement.  Large improvements, on the other hand, can take weeks or months, cost significantly more, and are riskier because of the difficulty to test before adopting.   So while you’re waiting for that million dollar improvement to occur, think about the number of small improvements that could have been implemented and the benefits that were lost during the wait.

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