5day_kaizenThe classic 5-day kaizen was likely created in the late 1980s by Shingijutsu kaizen consultants from Japan as they established their practice in the United States and beyond. Travelling the long distance from Japan to the east coast of the U.S. meant that kaizen consultants should obviously spend more than a day or two at their client’s location before they then return home to Japan. It made sense to stay for a period of time in which many abnormalities could be corrected by facilitating several kaizen teams at one time. Five days seemed about right.

The 5-day kaizen format has been maligned over the years. Criticisms include:

  • Lack of executive participation
  • Poor kaizen facilitation
  • Poor kaizen results
  • Difficulty transitioning to daily kaizen practice
  • Inability to sustain improvement activities

However, these criticisms are the result of failures of leadership and poor understanding of kaizen, not the result of the 5-day kaizen format or of kaizen itself.

Let’s focus for a moment on higher education, which, as a professor, I know well, and contrast that to 5-day kaizen which I have much experience with. The classroom is a contrived learning environment focused mainly on book learning and solving hypothetical problems (though many of which are derived from the real world). The standard three-credit course requires 45 contact hours (about a one workweek equivalent spread over a 14 week semester). Hands-on laboratory work for science and engineering subjects is the genba in higher education (and counts for an additional 1-2 credits, or 15-30 hours). But it too is a contrived learning environment, as it is not an actual workplace genba. Despite these shortcomings, classroom and laboratory learning environments are two pedagogies that have long succeeded at teaching students methods of inquiry and imparting useful knowledge. Of course, we all recognize that much that can be improved with respect to teaching, whether in the classroom or laboratory, and also the practical application of knowledge acquired in school to job-related challenges.

At its core, the 5-day kaizen is a teaching pedagogy. It is a method for teaching kaizen on-the-job. It teaches the goal (flow), the method, how to think, and how to quickly make improvements. The kaizen process and associated learnings can be applied anywhere in an organization and at any time. Therefore, what one learns in the 5-day kaizen can be applied in numerous other ways if one wishes to do so. Just as in higher education, where people learn important things that they do not apply (such as how to do research), people learn kaizen and don’t apply it. Importantly, this failure cannot be solely attributed to the teacher; the saying “If the student has not learned, the teacher has not taught” is false.

In my experience, the 5-day kaizen format is least effective when the kaizen consultant does not understand kaizen deeply. It is difficult to understand kaizen deeply. For some time now, I have been shadowing Mr. Chihiro Nakao of Shingijutsu USA during kaizen as my co-authors and I prepare a book about Mr. Nakao’s teachings. Mr. Nakao was trained in kaizen and mentored by Taiich Ohno. In the 21 years that I have been exposed to Shingijutsu kaizen, I have learned that Nakao-san’s teachings about kaizen are both profound and seem to be endless. I am certain that our book, whose focus is on kaizen and the thinking that created the Toyota Production System and The Toyota Way, will humble great numbers of kaizen facilitators, and also serve as an indispensable learning resource to improve people’s understanding and practice of kaizen.

A few weeks ago I once again shadowed Mr. Nakao as he taught kaizen at a company in Connecticut. I learned how the company took the initiative to improve the kaizen process to correct two important abnormalities: transition to daily practice and sustaining improvement activities. The classic 5-day (Monday-Friday) Shingijutsu-kaizen ends with a Friday morning close-out meeting. The general manager, Steve Ruggiero, came up with the idea of having a kaizen close-out meeting every Friday morning for kaizen teams to report the things they accomplished that week. Fifty-two Friday close-out meetings per year means kaizen will happen on a daily basis even if the kaizen consultant is not present. Each Friday close-out meeting is a weekly opportunity for kaizen teams to showcase what they learned from Mr. Nakao, show off their innovative and creative work, and celebrate success. People like doing that. What a great idea!

Another great idea is to ask an operator to shadow the sensei during the 5-day kaizen. An operator who has been in a kaizen or who has interacted with Mr. Nakao takes the role of kaizen historian. They carefully document each kaizen team’s work during the week and listen’s carefully to the sensei’s explanations and guidance – and also take part in the side conversations where the learning is often the best. This engages the operator in a different way and expands their knowledge of kaizen both in the detail and the big picture. The result is an awareness of the importance of kaizen and why it must be practiced every day. The operator is now able to communicate this to their peers which results in greater buy-in and energy for kaizen and promotes kaizen spirit. Fantastic!

Another improvement for the classic 5-day kaizen is for kaizen teams to create three simple visual controls that reinforce what they learned from the sensei and which remind and motivate people to practice kaizen every day. I would like to see simple signs and symbols in the shop and office that remind people of the goal (flow), the method, the way to think, actions to take, insightful quotes from the sensei or team members, and so on. Posting these visual controls in work areas will help support daily kaizen practice after sensei goes home.

In summary, the classic 5-day kaizen can be a very effective on-the-job teaching pedagogy. But, as when any type of teaching concludes, it is up to the learners to apply what they learned individually, every day, and for management to promote application of the learning throughout the organization.

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