One of the most common roadblocks to the successful adoption of lean thinking is the mistaken idea that kaizen applies only to the shop floor. Some leaders unfortunately consider kaizen as something to be delegated rather than used at all levels to drive improvement. Unless leaders become actively involved in learning and doing kaizen, however, the level of transformation required to achieve the big gains with lean will never happen.
Kaizen at the Leadership Level
One reason leaders need to use kaizen is to improve the company’s high-level systems, including business planning, hiring, and leadership development. W. Edwards Deming estimated that more than 90% of an organization’s problems are the result of the system; and improving the system is not something that can be delegated. Applying a kaizen mindset, based on the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, is the key to unlocking the 90% and achieving the type of improvement expected from the transformation.
A far less understood – but just as important – benefit of leadership involvement in kaizen is to coach and develop the problem-solving skills of team members. Success cannot be sustained without developing an army of problem solvers throughout the organization, and limiting problem-solving to a select few experts, as is often the case with initiatives like 6-sigma, prevents creating a culture where everybody improves the work they do every day.
Developing problem-solving skills across the organization starts at the top and cascades downward through coaching and developing the abilities of leaders and team members at all levels. Leaders need to take responsibility for creating a continual improvement culture by modeling a kaizen mindset and coaching the ability of others – including future leaders – to do the same.
Strategic Initiatives and Kaizen
One thing that is not often understood is that a strategic initiative is really a large-scale kaizen. The objective of a high-level initiative should identify a business gap that needs to be closed, and that the plan is a hypothesis that (1) it can be implemented as defined, and (2) it will result in achieving the objective. Regular reviews to measure progress and adjust as needed constitute the STUDY and ACT phases of the PDSA cycle. For these reasons, approaching an initiative as kaizen greatly increases the probability of success.
Rather than an executive driving the initiative, however, it is best to assign it to someone targeted for development as a future leader. Facing a tough high-level business problem, along with coaching from a current leader, is an excellent way to develop long-term abilities in problem-solving, coaching, and leadership.
When a leader starts to develop a deep understanding of kaizen, it becomes clear that the process applies to all aspects of work. Until the transformation occurs however, kaizen – like virtually all aspects of lean thinking – will be seen as something that can be delegated. As a result, frustration and disappointment with lean grows until the effort is abandoned altogether.