Kaizen Events Are Work Arounds

This post is another in a series of reflections I have had after attending the Lean Experience class by Jamie Flinchbaugh and Andy Carlino from the Lean Learning Center.

For several years, I have have seen kaizen events as a tool.  It is a tool to help get people together to drive improvement or to help re-energize the employee engagement.  Some may mislead you and say that it is lean to do kaizen events.  It isn’t lean, but just another tool of lean.  Like any tool, you need to know when is the appropriate time to use it.  This was reinforced during the week.

The ‘a-ha’ moment I had is when Jamie described kaizen events as a work around for an organization that does not normally work cross functionally naturally.

In a company that is displaying lean behaviors, people in the organization would work together cross functionally naturally, without being “forced” through a kaizen event.  Another way to put it is the internal customer and supplier relationship has a strong bond so both are naturally considered and involved in the improvement process.

If this is the case, then in an organization that working across functional boundaries well, are kaizen events even needed?  Are companies that brag on the number of kaizen events, just really good at work arounds?  Is the ideal state to have no kaizen events (because of good cross functional work, not just stop doing them)?

If you look at it in this way, then it really pushes how we view the way work should be done.

Other blog posts about my learnings from the Lean Experience Class:

Posted on December 3, 2010, in Development, Tools and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Matt – the title of this post caught my attention!

    The heart of this issue is how we define ‘kaizen’.
    The term ‘kaizen event’, as used in your post, has always been misleading.

    The definition of ‘kaizen’ has changed over the years, especially in the U.S., as more and more companies explore lean/continuous improvement initiatives. Most lean folks today are aware that the Japanese word ‘kaizen’ is made from two words; ‘kai’-change, and ‘zen’-goodness or virtue. From this, comes the familiar English definitions for kaizen, ‘change for the better’ and ‘continuous improvement’.

    Although both definitions adequately provide a proper sense of what kaizen is about, it’s important to note that, due to translation issues between Japanese and English, neither definition helps FULLY explain the complete meaning of kaizen.

    In my opinion, kaizen is best stated (and understood) in English as a philosophy or ‘way-of-life’. This is why the term ‘kaizen event’ becomes misleading. It seems silly to talk about having a ‘way-of-life event’.

    Kaizen is NOT an event. Continuous improvement is stringing together events, thinking moments, team engagements, etc. (NOT kaizens or kaizen events) over and over; with a focus on a common vision.

    With all that said…I would agree with Jamie. Kaizen EVENTS are work arounds. We should strive to develop our improvement processes to the point where everyone is fully engaged NATURALLY.

    What would I call the pursuit of this ideal state?


    • Steve –

      You bring up a great point. Mark Graban posted a guest blog I wrote on this very subject (http://www.leanblog.org/2009/08/guest-post-big-k-vs-little-k/). I completely agree that the ideal state is a state of Kaizen, meaning that it is a way of life for everyone to improve on a daily basis. Unfortunately, that is not how everyone has interrupted Kaizen so the events have become a part of some companies culture. With that being the case, why did the events become part of a culture, because it was a work around to having a true Kaizen culture and people not working together.

      Thanks for bringing that up.

  2. A light bulb just went off for me:

    “The ‘a-ha’ moment I had is when Jamie described kaizen events as a work around for an organization that does not normally work cross functionally naturally.”

    This can be a challenging concept for most businesses to grasp. We’ve been trained to work in silos our entire careers, for the most part, and functional silos are usually a by-product of lack of trust.

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