Kaizen is often translated as “Continuous Improvement” in Japanese and is identified as one of the core themes in lean. In today’s post I am looking at the question – can kaizen ever be bad for an organization?
In order to go deeper on this question, first we have to define kaizen as a focused improvement activity. The question at this point is whether we are optimizing the process. Merriam-Webster defines Optimization as;
Optimization – an act, process, or methodology of making something (as a design, system, or decision) as fully perfect, functional, or effective as possible.
In my opinion, kaizen does not mean to optimize the process to 100% perfection. My point of contention on this is that kaizen should not be about local optimization. Local optimization means to optimize a process so that it is fully optimized without taking the whole system into consideration. This leads to tremendous waste. The local improvement should not cause a problem to an upstream or downstream activity. My best analogy is to work out the upper body without taking the lower body into consideration. This leads to a disproportionately developed body. In a similar vein, Prof. Emiliani views kaizen as a non-zero-sum activity – “everybody wins’!
Let’s look at an example. As part of a kaizen event at a hospital, the intake staff was able to make the client intake process very efficient. They were able to show that their improvement activities resulted in a much shorter time for client intake and they were able to get more clients in through the door. However, this caused more problems at the downstream processes. The staff at these processes were not able to serve the higher number of clients adequately which resulted in higher customer dissatisfaction and staff burn-outs.
Kaizen is a gradual and small incremental change towards the ideal state. The key point here is “ideal state”. How would you define “ideal state”? The “ideal state” means the ideal situation for the organization as a whole. Taiichi Ohno, the creator of Toyota Production System, said that “No standard = no kaizen.” The standard defines the process at its current goal and has three elements;
- Takt time – the defined rate of production to meet customer demand
- Sequence of work – the defined sequence of work to ensure safety, quality and efficiency
- Standard Work in Process – the defined inventory required to ensure that the takt time goal is met
Toyota’s goal is to improve overall efficiency and not local efficiency. This defines the goal of kaizen. Break the current state and create the new standard – while keeping the overall efficiency in mind. Ohno’s favorite way to challenge the current standard is by asking to use fewer operators to achieve the same required output.
What is Management’s role in all of this? Management has to lay the framework for everything to function properly. Dr. Deming, the pioneer of continuous improvement activities, says the following;
It is management’s job to direct the efforts of all components toward the aim of the system. The first step is clarification: everyone in the organization must understand the aim of the system, and how to direct his efforts toward it. Everyone must understand the danger and loss to whole organization from a team that seeks to become a selfish, independent, profit center.
Source: The New Economics, Dr. Deming.
It is important to view the improvement activities from a big picture standpoint. Viewing kaizen from a system standpoint is essential. I have always been curious about how the small incremental improvement activities would make a big difference in the end. I will finish this post talking about the 800 year old Bronze statue of St. Peter holding the keys to Heaven in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
It looks like St. Peter is wearing shoes on his right foot and sandals on the left foot. Over eight centuries, pilgrims have been touching his right foot that is more accessible (it sticks out more) and asking for blessings. No one has been rubbing on the foot or sanding it down. There has been no complaint of vandalism or apparent damage to the statue. The simple act of touching and kissing over time worn the bronze statue down – that St. Peter lost all his toes on his right foot. It is said that the Church started requesting visitors to start touching the left foot more. It appears that the left foot has got a lot of catching up to do.
Always keep on learning…
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In case you missed it, my last post was Seneca’s “On Shortness of Life”.