The Power of Kaizen

In recent years, many organizations have lost interest in learning about Lean tools and Lean management in a classroom setting. They choose an alternative learning method called “action learning,” and may augment that with “change management,” “systems thinking,” or “design thinking.” All of this in an effort to create “the adaptive enterprise,” “learning organizations,” “resilient organizations,” and the like to model themselves after Toyota.

To my eyes, this is silly stuff. It turns something that is relatively simple into something that is extremely complicated and likely bureaucratic as well. Ask yourself a question: How did Toyota become a “learning organization” without any of the named approaches listed above? They did it using kaizen.

kaizen_powerKaizen is what Lean organizations should be doing. But over the years, the Lean community has been taught to think that you can be Lean without kaizen. You must unlearn that. There is no Lean without kaizen. Why? Because kaizen itself is action learning, change management, systems thinking, and design thinking – plus human resource development, team building, and innovation practice – all rolled into one. The proper practice of kaizen yields the type of adaptable and responsive organization that leaders want for the rapidly changing, competitive, and technological world we now live in.

Yet, organizations do everything else but kaizen. And, if they do kaizen, it probably is not the classical industrial engineering-based kaizen that propelled Toyota to the top of their industry. It seems that everyone has their own idea of what kaizen is, and in most cases the kaizen that people practice is a highly diluted form of Shingijutsu-Kaizen, resulting in dumb things like “5S kaizen,” “value stream mapping kaizen,” etc. This is bad kaizen because it has little or no impact on people, processes, or business results.

People set their sights on building a learning organization. Yet, all organizations are learning organizations. Employees quickly learn what to do and what not to do, and how that changes as managers and markets come and go. The question is whether or not an organization can respond in real time, absorb or take advantage of various disruptions, and survive and prosper over time.

What leaders should really want to build is an unlearning organization. Mature organizations, especially, have much to unlearn and re-learn. They must break old paradigms (batch-and-queue) that served yesterday’s needs and generate new paradigms (flow) to serve current – and rapidly changing – future needs. The difficulty that most organizations have in transforming from conventional management to Lean management proves how difficult it is to unlearn. The pervasiveness of Fake Lean tells us that people and organizations have great difficulty letting go of what they know.

As sensei Chihiro Nakao says: “You have to go back to zero. Put yourself under dire circumstances to think differently.” Kaizen, done right, puts you back to zero and forces you to think and act differently. It creates continuously unlearning organizations – organizations that eliminate inefficient and unproductive processes as well as inefficient and unproductive beliefs, behaviors, and competencies in people at all levels of the organization.

The answer is under everyone’s nose, but it seems few want to believe that something so simple in appearance, kaizen, can have such a great impact on people and organizations. Believe it. They cannot comprehend that using Lean tools outside of the context of kaizen is close to meaningless in terms of learning and the results that are achieved. Lean tools must be used within the context of kaizen to be effective and to generate the needed unlearning-learning cycles.

There are four books on kaizen that you should read, especially if your Lean journey has not yet included kaizen. The first two books, Shingijutsu-Kaizen: The Art of Discovery and Learning and Kaizen Forever: Teachings of Chihiro Nakaoare valuable because they contain lively and detailed descriptions of the kaizen method. There are no other books like these. The next two books, Toyota Kaizen Methods: Six Steps to Improvement and Kaizen Express: Fundamentals for Your Lean Journeyprovide important complimentary but less lively descriptions of kaizen.

Get these four books and: 1) read to improve your understanding of kaizen, 2) convert what you have learned into practice, and 3) read the books again, 4) more practice, and 5) repeat steps 1-4.

Another thing to consider is that too many people comprehend continuous improvement as: “We made an improvement and now were done. Don’t change it.” Or, there is commitment to improvement but the interval between improvements is months or longer. People have got to get back to basics.

The model that executives are looking at today is Silicon Valley and its ability to adjust to rapidly changing conditions and also drive rapid change. That’s the new model – the digital model – which, if kaizen remains an “event,” a once in a while activity, then it won’t be long before Lean all but disappears.

Your effective practice of classical industrial engineering-based kaizen will help save Lean.

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