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deming, improvement, leadership, lean, management, transformation

It’s All Kaizen

“Management is prediction.”  W. Edwards Deming
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One of the beliefs that often interferes with a successful lean deployment is the assumption that kaizen only applies to workers.  When an organization attempts to overlay lean on top of a management system driven by traditional thinking, its leaders will consider kaizen as a worker responsibility and delegate it to the shop floor.  A sign that transformation toward a lean mindset is begining to occur, however, is when leaders start to understand that kaizen applies to everyone.  Whether addressing a problem in a work process or dealing with a high-level company-wide issue, a kaizen approach can increase learning and the chances for a successful result.

The Basic Process

Building a sustained improvement process requires much more than merely getting people to submit ideas.  Basing improvement only on worker input often results in haphazard changes and a list of suggestions that continues to grow until people eventually give up believing that management is not serious about their input.

What is often misunderstood – or forgotten – about the kaizen process is that it is rooted in scientific method.  Success with kaizen requires application of the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle to facilitate continual learning and a clear understanding of the problem being addressed.  Applying the PDSA cycle to the improvement process includes steps similar to the following:

·   Understanding the target/ideal condition based on what the process or system is intended to achieve;

·   Identifying the current condition to better understand the gap or problem that is being addressed;

·   Determining the potential causes of the gap between current performance and the target condition;

·   Creating a countermeasure to address one or more of the potential causes of the problem;

·   Testing the countermeasure to clearly understand whether or not it works as intended;

·   Taking action based on the test results, which can include adopting, modifying, or abandoning the countermeasure;

·   Continuing to watch results, if the countermeasure is adopted, to assure improvement is sustained.

Besides the obvious benefits to business performance with this type of approach, understanding that an idea to address a problem is really just a hypothesis that must be tested unlocks learning that can truly begin the transformation.

Higher-Level Kaizen

Although leaders generally agree with the use of PDSA to address shop floor problems, applying the same level of thinking to the work they do often requires transformation.  High-level issues like the need to improve the success of new product introductions, improving the development of future leaders, or expanding into new markets can be addressed much more effectively when approached with a kaizen mindset.

Whether dealing with defects on the shop floor or a high-level business issue, improvement must still begin with understanding the target condition, or what success looks like.  For example, to address a poorly performing product development process, we can’t understand what “poorly” means if we do not know what defines success.  This could include characteristics like cycle times for new product introduction, clarifying development costs, or expected sales levels during the life of a new product.  Without this type of clarification, the initiative will lack clear direction and likely have trouble staying on track.

Defining the target condition enables a clear definition of the problem as the gap between the target and current performance.  This focuses the effort on closing the gap rather than letting the initiative stray by allowing people to include pet ideas or random changes that don’t directly address the problem at hand.

Clarifying the problem also provides the ability to gage the effectiveness of improvement actions by continuing to measure the gap between the target and current condition.  This is the STUDY phase of the PDSA cycle – understanding whether the improvement actions (hypotheses) are actually improving performance.  If they are, we will want to standardize the improvements to assure they can be sustained.  If the actions have not led to improvement, we would want to know the reasons and possibly adjust or abandon the actions.  Although piloting business-level changes can be more difficult than with process changes, it is critical to try because of the potential damage that can result from a poor decision.  In those instances where running a test is not possible, changes must be watched closely – and objectively – to assure they are driving the type of results expected.

A Countermeasure Without a Problem

A huge benefit of applying kaizen thinking at the leadership level is that is puts a stop to random initiatives – i.e., those that don’t appear to address specific problems.  Actions like changing major systems or adding new initiatives to areas that are not necessarily experiencing problems with current methods are highly disruptive to the workplace and often cause more harm than good. 

Every day, consultants and writers present a variety of unique and interesting approaches to business issues.  Even when a new idea appears to be relevant to a business, though, it should not be attempted without clearly understanding the problem it is meant to address.  Actually, when the environment becomes guided by kaizen thinking, understanding the problem would be followed by investigating the causes rather than attempting to force fit a countermeasure like a software solution or changing a major system.  When a new approach does appear to directly address a problem facing the company, it should still be piloted to assure it works as intended. 

Transformation is Needed

Successfully deploying a continual improvement mindset across a company will not happen without transformation in thinking at all levels of the organization.  It is not possible to turn kaizen on and off depending on the type of problem being addressed or organizational level affected.  If leaders delegate kaizen to the “worker level” while applying a business-as-usual approach to organizational problems, transformation will not occur and lean will be doomed to fail.

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About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.

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