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Everything Continuous Improvement


Which of These 6 Improvement Methodologies Do You Need The Most?

Posted by Mark Graban

Jun 9, 2016 7:30:00 AM


For those who are new to continuous improvement, all of the terminology and improvement methodologies can get a bit overwhelming. As we always say at KaiNexus, a culture of improvement and innovation requires three things: leadership, methodology, and technology. Of course, we’re partial to KaiNexus as the technology that can help with all sorts of different methodologies that are used in the context of Lean. But which methodology should you use?

Trick question. You shouldn't use just one, but rather, likely need many - or even all - of them.

Daily Kaizen

This style of Kaizen is sometimes called “daily continuous improvement” -- it’s the methodology from Masaaki Imai’s book KAIZEN, a journal article written by our CEO Dr. Greg Jacobson, and the Healthcare Kaizen books that I wrote with Joe Swartz. The ideal is having everybody involved in improvement, everywhere and every day. Many of these improvements are “just do its,” as they involve a small, simple problem that requires a simple solution that we test following the model of Plan, Do, Study, Adjust (PDSA).

Pro tip: All of these approaches are PDSA. Don’t Plan Plan Plan or just Do without also Studying and (if needed) Adjusting.

Some are skeptical of the value of everybody solving small problems. It’s true that some problems are bigger and more complicated. They require more effort and a more rigorous methodology.


If a problem is relatively small and has an obvious countermeasure that can be tested, it’s probably a daily kaizen improvement. If there’s a problem without an obvious solution, that might become an “A3.” The A3 approach isn’t just about the size of your paper; it’s a way of thinking. We make sure we properly define the problem and have some measurable gap between our desired performance and actual performance.

Pro tip: This approach is very similar to what some would call “practical problem solving” or “eight-step problem solving” (watch this webinar for more on that).

In the A3 approach, we’ll do a more detailed study of the current state process (or even map the broader value stream). We might need to do root cause analysis, utilizing fishbone diagrams or the “5 whys” approach. There’s a lot more work involved before we get to a solution to test (remember, this is still PDSA). Not every problem can be solved through the daily kaizen process, but don’t force everything to be an A3 either. Don’t overcomplicate things!

Pro tip: Some problems might seem like a daily Kaizen at first… but after testing a countermeasure, you realize that you haven’t solved the problem and you didn’t really understand the problem… so it becomes an A3. That’s OK, don’t beat yourself up over that.

Toyota Kata

Many of our customers love the “Toyota Kata” methodology, including Michael Lombard (see this webinar to learn more about this methodology and KaiNexus). It’s a form of PDSA in which you incrementally work your way toward a defined goal. In the practice of “Kata,” there are main cycles: the Improvement Kata (used by the person leading the improvement) and the Coaching Kata (used by, well, the coach). These approaches help people develop good habits and “muscle memory” in our brains that serve us well even if we’re going other types of improvement.

Pro tip: One challenging thing about Toyota Kata is being honest about the reflections of “what did we learn?” for each cycle, rather than just focusing on what we accomplished.

Kaizen Events

These events, often called “Rapid Improvement Events” or “Rapid Process Improvement Workshops” (that’s a mouthful) in healthcare, are more involved than daily kaizen improvements. Events involve a team of people from different functions or departments and they work full-time on a problem and testing a solution for anywhere from two to five full days. If daily Kaizen is “continuous improvement,” then events are “episodic improvement.”

Like the other approaches, events should follow the PDSA process. A team will take a relatively large problem, map the current process or value stream, do root cause analysis, collect data… working toward solutions they can test during the event.

Pro tip: Effective events don’t just generate a “to do” list for follow up. You should be testing and implementing changes during the event. Yes, you might have a follow-up list, but that should be for small details, not the major change of the event.

Many organizations have only done events. That’s why Joe Swartz and I wrote our Healthcare Kaizen books - to encourage people to combine these methodologies. Just as everything doesn’t require an A3, not every problem requires an event. Use events when needed, for the bigger, more complex challenges.

Strategic Initiatives

Speaking of complex challenges, every organization out there has big initiatives that might take months or years to complete. Even without Lean and continuous improvement, leaders have always generated big projects to be managed and tracked. These major projects or strategic initiatives generally have a project manager or program manager and a team that works on them over time. Major projects might include building a new facility or developing a new product or line of service. Adopting Lean and creating a culture of continuous improvement might be a major project of its own, at a high level over time.

Pro tip: Ideally, these big initiatives are managed using a PDSA mindset or A3 thinking. The time cycles are longer and the ability to adjust at the end of a major project might be more limited.

Major projects are usually managed and overseen by a Project Management Office or Program Management Office (PMO). Full time professional project or program managers usually have a different background and experiences than Lean or continuous improvement people. But some organizations have combined the Lean Office with the PMO to have everything under the same leaders.

Strategy Deployment

Strategy deployment (or Hoshin Kanri) is a Lean approach for aligning goals and improvement efforts across an entire organization. This means that every person from the front-line staff to senior executives understands the organization’s primary goals, can relate them to their area, and strives to reach those goals through continuous improvement, A3s, projects, etc. Hoshin Kanri steers an organization toward long-term strategic objectives while maintaining and improving key business processes and results through systematic planning and good organizational alignment - both throughout the year and over multi-year cycles.

How the work is visualized and how it is organized play critical roles in having a successful strategy deployment effort. Software helps by organizing all of your top-down and bottom-up work to ensure alignment with high-level goals. It increases visibility so that every person in the organization knows what strategic goals are, how the organization is doing, and how their area is helping to attain those goals.

KaiNexus Helps With All of It

The beauty of KaiNexus is that our system is designed to be flexible. If you use any or all of those methodologies (or Six Sigma or other approaches, even), KaiNexus will help you track any of those small improvements, Kata cycles, A3s, events, or major initiatives. Combining different methodologies means knowing when to use which. KaiNexus makes it easy to capture, implement, measure, and share each type of improvement.

KaiNexus helps you to ensure that the leadership behaviors are consistent regardless of which methodology is being used, which is a critical element of an improvement culture that spreads and sustains. KaiNexus can be the single system of record for sharing, tracking, and quantifying the impact of your improvement work.

No matter which methodologies you use, engagement is key.

Download this free guide to learn how to boost yours:

The Savvy's Leader's Guide to Employee Engagement



Topics: Improvement Methodology

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