With more and more companies in almost every industry adopting the Lean management approach or at least taking a few pages from it, Kaizen events are more popular than ever. That’s wonderful because they can be a very useful tool for improving processes and teaching leadership. But, unfortunately, we’ve seen too many instances of organizations that try to cut corners or fail to understand the best way to utilize Kaizen events. It would be nice if they were as easy as getting a few folks in a room for a couple of days and – presto – problem solved.
Sadly, that’s not how it works. We hate to burst the bubble, but Kaizen events require planning, leadership, and precise application. Here is the truth about successful rapid improvement events, whether folks want to hear it or not.
1 – Kaizen events are not right for every problem.
We get it. People get their hands on a new tool, and they want to use it. We don’t blame them, but you’ve got to choose the right tool for every job. Kaizen events make sense when a problem is significant, somewhat complex, and in need of a collaborative response. There is a cost associated with pulling people away from their other work to solve a problem, so it should be one that will have a measurable impact. For simple issues that are contained within one process or department, incremental daily improvement is probably more efficient. For super complicated problems, a three to five-day sprint is probably not going to do it, and a longer-term project plan should be deployed.
2 – Executive leadership needs to be involved.
We are huge proponents of bottom-up improvement initiatives, and Kaizen events fit that definition because the people doing the work are involved in the improvement. But that doesn’t mean that executive leadership gets to sit out. Kaizen events require the input and approval of leaders because the job responsibility of the team members will be changed for a few days. Also, there may be roadblocks or challenges that require someone with authority to step in. Finally, the improvements to be implemented may need approval and/or budget.
3 – Training is required.
Participating in a Kaizen event is a skill that needs to be learned. Team members need to understand each role and where they fit in the plan. It is also important that people be trained to stick to the event charter and avoid scope creep, which isn’t easy to do. Also, people need to be familiar with all of the tools and techniques that will be used, such as PDSA, the 5 Whys, Catchball, and value stream mapping.
4 – The work starts BEFORE the event.
To really get the most out of the concentrated time that is devoted to problem-solving, careful planning and data gathering must take place well before. Tasks like choosing the right team, selecting the facilitator, determining the target and scope of the event, gathering and analyzing baseline data, defining success, and communicating the goals all take place well before the kick-off day.
5 – Improvement software helps.
You can absolutely do a Kaizen event without improvement software in place, but your chances of success increase if you leverage a technology platform to manage it. The software tool becomes the home for all tasks, documents, reports, and dashboards for the event. You can leverage tools like control charts, Kanban boards, and email notifications to make sure that everyone is up to speed. Communications between team members are accessible during and after the event so that you can get smarter every single time.
6 – It’s not over when it’s over.
Don’t let the word “event” fool you. Although the days devoted to the improvement project are limited, the work carries on long after. If the result of the event is a changed process, new Standard work documentation must be created and operationalized. There should be a planned set of follow-up points (often 30, 60, and 90 days) to see if the change has created the intended result. The participation and success of those involved must be recognized and rewarded. Finally, there should be a review of the event to determine if there is anything that could be done differently in the future to get better results from the next go.
We’re not trying to make Kaizen events too difficult to be worth the effort. They aren’t. But if you are going to invest the resources, it is best to know what you are getting into. When applied toward the right types of challenges and properly executed, Kaizen events can be a game-changer for organizations of every kind and size.