To truly reap the benefits of continual improvement, what should be the focus of a kaizen process? Should efforts be focused on improving business performance or improving people through learning and development?
Obviously every company wants to continually improve performance, but wanting to do it and knowing how to do it over the long-term are two different things. It comes down to a question of cause and effect – or what needs to happen to cause improvements to occur on a continual basis?
When a person or team comes up with an idea to improve a process, there are two possible outcomes: the idea will work or it won’t. You can never guarantee that an idea will result in improvement. What you can do, though, is design the process so that people learn about the areas in which they work by testing ideas, and learn about the kaizen process by participating in improvement activities.
When an improvement process is only about business performance, team members will not necessarily develop kaizen skills. And in this situation, the organization misses out on the opportunity to grow kaizen activity because the number of people who are able to facilitate improvement projects remains static.
In most cases, the direct financial benefit from an individual kaizen will be relatively small. True measurable benefits from a kaizen process will result only when improvements occur frequently. This can only happen when a large number of people understand the process and are actively involved in improvement activities.
To grow the process and change the culture, leaders must emphasize the importance of developing problem-solving skills with each kaizen project. Whenever the results of an improvement effort are presented, it is critical to inquire about the learning that occurred. Too much focus on the business result can drastically stunt the growth of the process and keep the organization from reaching the type of success that few have ever experienced.