Matt's Articles

The essence of Kaizen Event

This month I am excited to write about Kaizen Events. I facilitated a Kaizen Event last month. It had been awhile. I really enjoy these events because of the interactions, the focus, and the problem solving. I find it motivating. When I teach the method in a classroom environment I am not sure people understand what makes this different from any other working session. In this article I will give thoughts on what separates working sessions from Kaizen Events.

For those of you that hear the word Kaizen and think, “What is that word? Is it some kind of Japanese word?” Well yes, you are right it is. I was taught that “Kia” means “to change” and “Zen” means “for the better.” Together, in Japanese, it means “improvement.” When someone tells me they are going to Kaizen something, I typically assume that they are going to hold an improvement event, but that doesn’t have to be the meaning. It could be that they are just going to improve. Okay, before you stop reading I will get to something more interesting.

For the lean zealots in the audience, a Kaizen Event is specifically a 5 day team activity where the first couple days are spent measuring and observing the process and the last few days are making the changes to see if they work. This description alone illustrates the difference between a group work session and Kaizen Event. A Kaizen Event is action oriented. There is tangible outcome in the end and a verifiable improvement. If that was all there was to say on this topic this would be a short newsletter and I could go back to watching the White Sox, but in practice most of the Kaizen Events I run don’t follow this precise structure. The traditional structure works well in a high volume manufacturing environment. You can easily observe the work because the steps are consistent, short, and repetitive. As a result, the steps are easy to gauge for improvement after a change. This is not the case in service environments where there may be a customer directly involved or software that takes months to change and test just for demonstration purposes. But I haven’t let those differences stop me from performing Kaizen Events and preferring them over working sessions. This is because I retain the essence of what I believe is the value of the event.

For me a Kaizen Event is:

  1. “Well Planned” everything from the problem statement to the dynamic of the different personalities of the people participating in the event.
  2. “Multi-Day”  persistent problems are persistent because we haven’t made the time to focus on them. We underestimate how long it will take to fix something or we “take what we can get” and end up with a poor or partial solution.
  3. “Cross-Functional” to ensure that all perspectives on the problem, causes, and potential solution are considered.
  4. “Fact Based” to reveal the unknown truths about the process, to avoid the biasing from the “experts” or simply the loudest people in the organization.
  5. “Results Oriented” because there is a real cost to putting people in a room for 2 to 5 days and the expectation of results drives and focuses the team.

While the results aren’t always implemented at the end of the event and the team may not be the ones performing the data collection in the event, I believe these 5 points retain the essence of what makes Kaizen Events more valuable than a typical working session.

The bottom line is that Kaizen Events produce results and working sessions don’t necessarily produce results. So always Kaizen! Actually, scratch that. Working sessions have their place. I prefer the Kaizen Events, but keep in mind there will be a good deal of preparation to pull off the event. If the problem is simple, if it doesn’t require much in the way of different functions working together, if the solution is fairly well known, then a few short working sessions can do the trick without all the formality. That is, sessions that are not heavily planned, facilitated, don’t follow a specific structure can be effective. As with any continuous improvement method it is about bringing the best method to the problem where it is most suited or will have the greatest impact. Avoid the buzz words and always be willing to modify a method to support the specifics of your challenge. Just don’t lose the essence of the method in that process. With that said, I get excited when I find a problem that can be accelerated to resolution with a Kaizen event, so if you get a chance I recommend taking part.