It seems most people think kaizen is easy to know and do, when in fact it is challenging and of strategic importance to any business. Therefore, efforts should be made to master kaizen. Instead, people are overconfident and they make changes to kaizen without fully comprehending the effect that the changes will have on people or on the pace and magnitude of improvement.

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Don’t bring kaizen down to people. Bring people up to kaizen and beyond. That is how you develop people.

Toyota’s kaizen method is often greatly reduced to a level that people will accept or to their current level of capability. The result is improvements that don’t make much of a difference in terms of the work or have little overall business impact. Yet, people will say: “We’re doing kaizen,” and management, not knowing any better, will agree.

Instead of lowering kaizen to people will accept or their current level of understanding, one should strive to raise people’s understanding of kaizen and develop their skills and capabilities for improvement to have greater impact on the business over time.

Let’s turn to music for a useful analogy. When learning music, a struggling musician does hundreds of repetitions to learn how to play a song. The repetitions (standard work) also help them increase their skill level and better understand the music, note by note. One has to spend years mastering the basics – learning how to play and to understand music – before one can begin to improvise or create a new versions of songs, with the intent to create something better than before.

The musician, therefore, has raised their capabilities to the level necessary to play music that sounds good.

Likewise, one has to learn kaizen well (Toyota-style, industrial engineering-based kaizen), through years of practice, before one can begin to create a new version or improvise. Instead, people evolve kaizen before they understand it or have mastered the basics. One of those basics is standard work.

Knowing how to create standard work is fundamental in kaizen, as it serves as a baseline for improvement and also helps people figure out the work and understand what is actually happening (akin to sheet music). Without standard work, the work is disconnected and chaotic, and does not flow. Kaizen without standard work means people don’t really know what is going on and they don’t understand the work. Therefore, they cannot improve the work in ways that have a big impact on the business and its customers.

The employees (and managers), therefore, have not raised their capabilities to the level necessary to do good work.

Predictably, people soon begin to say “kaizen doesn’t work.” Senior managers get frustrated, and when that happens, employees are now in harm’s way. They start to think about outsourcing work, mergers, layoffs, pay and benefits cuts, furloughs, and other things that will negatively impact employees. Employees then think, “Why bother with kaizen if management is going to do that?”

So, there are good reasons to not (and never) be overconfident in one’s understanding of kaizen, and to not evolve kaizen before one has mastered the basics.

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