Sunday, May 5, 2013

Kaizen At All Levels

One of the common misconceptions about kaizen is that it is limited only to shop floor workers.  When an organization’s leaders hold this belief, it can significantly obstruct the ability to improve and often leads to losing interest in, or abandoning the kaizen process altogether.

Although the scope of kaizen activities changes depending on organizational level, continual improvement is everybody’s job regardless of position.  In fact, the ability of lower levels to succeed with kaizen is highly dependent on how well the higher levels are handling their improvement responsibilities

Success with kaizen requires a systems perspective and an understanding of how the elements work together to support each other and achieve success.  Each level in the organization has specific responsibilities for kaizen.

Team members generally participate in traditional small-scope kaizen activities.  They are the closest to the processes and direct their activities at removing the barriers that interfere with perfect execution of their work.  Although there is interest in making sure changes do not negatively affect other parts of the value stream, the focus is on reducing waste and improving the standardized work within their own process.

Depending on the company’s processes, the cycle time of a typical kaizen can be as short as 1-2 weeks.

Lower and middle managers (including supervisors, managers, and engineering/technical positions) tend to focus their improvement activities on the value stream.  This includes managing WIP and buffer levels, decreasing cycle times, improving handoffs between steps/areas, and reducing variation within processes.  Middle management improvements tend to be mid-scope in nature and can take 3-6 months to fully implement and verify the effectiveness of countermeasures.  Although the improvement activity at this level does not generally occur in a traditional kaizen team setting like team member improvements, it still follows the PDSA process.

It should be noted that supervisors and managers need to participate in and, at times, lead small-scope kaizens to stay sharp and remain connected to the processes for which they are ultimately responsible.

Upper managers and executives apply kaizen through business planning processes.  This includes setting the direction for the organization and assuring priorities are clear.  A difficult part of this responsibility is assuring that 2-3 critical breakthroughs are identified that will stretch the organization without overloading people.  Like all improvement activity, the hoshin process enables learning and improvement to occur by applying the PDSA cycle.  Since the focus is at the organizational level, the timeframe for improvements can be as long as 1-5 years.

Executives should also participate in small-scope kaizens on occasion for the same reasons as those in middle management positions.

As with any other aspect of lean, the specifics of improvement activity at different levels should obviously be tailored to the organization.  The key is for everyone to understand their responsibilities in the improvement process and how they support its continued success.