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What is Kaizen?

Welcome back. We've been celebrating Opgrade's 10th Anniversary with a new video series. In the first video, I shared a little bit about our company's history and the journey we've been on. In the second video, I briefly described Lean and how it can help your organization become more productive. Today, in our third video, I'm going to answer another common question, "What is Kaizen?"

In fact, I'm going to answer three questions:

• Why Kaizen?

• What is Kaizen?

• And how do we Kaizen?

Why Kaizen?

Let's start with a quote from Shigeo Shingo, the renowned Toyota engineer and expert in the Toyota Production System, or what you and I might call Lean. Shingo said, "Improvement usually means doing something that we have never done before."

That is the heart and foundation of Kaizen. In the words of Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Kaizen is an excellent means to change direction. That is why we Kaizen. If you’re happy where you are and where your organization is headed, don’t kaizen. It would just be frustrating for all involved. However, if you know your organization can and should be better, or stated differently, if you know you need more conscious choice and discipline in your organization, kaizen is a great way to get these things.

So, then, what is Kaizen?

"Kaizen" is the literal pronunciation and translation of two Japanese characters. First "Kai", which generally means change, and "Zen," a familiar term that means holistic and beneficial.

So "Kai-Zen" then means a beneficial, holistic change for a person, team, or organization. An improvement. Kaizen, at its core, means process improvement. If a process change isn't the result of a Kaizen, maybe it's not really a Kaizen. There are many events I’ve been a part of that were called kaizens, but were really just a process mapping event. Those were probably more discovery events than true kaizens, but you know what? If those efforts led to an improved understanding of the process, and that in turn leads to real process change, then so be it. Keep calling them kaizens.

Still, Kaizen’s hyper-literal translation is to self-sacrificially improve your self, your department, your division, for the benefit of the whole. And not only that, Kaizen is a method of dramatically improving something in a short amount of time.

If we do that, kaizen creates a high-profile explosion of improvement activity, and in so doing, breaks down those long-established paradigms that improvement must be these long, drawn-out projects.

Sound impossible? Well, as unfamiliar as real kaizens are to most organizations, I've seen it work, many, many times, for numerous companies, large and small, across a variety of industries. All the while blasting through the typical business politics we all deal with every day.

Now, you may be thinking, "Blasting through business politics? Now, I know your crazy, Nate!" Well, that may be true, but how many times, during a normal project, have you asked for some data or a report, or whatever, and heard back "We can have it for you in three to five days, or even three to five weeks!" Not so during a Kaizen. If the organization has decided to invest in a kaizen, it should be the company’s top priority while it’s happening, so during a kaizen it's not unusual to get that same information in three to five hours, or even three to five minutes. During a kaizen, we’re there to identify and fix root causes. Remember, the whole point of a Kaizen is to focus and make real change happen. No one wants to get in the way of that, so the “impossible” consistently seems to happen during a kaizen.

Whether you believe me or not, the impossible is possible when an organization is willing to change, and kaizens show the organization that we actually are changing. Something is different here, and that starts to drive a level of ownership within the organization that is not ordinarily seen.

When you put together a cross-functional team to go solve a problem, Kaizen enables team members, at all levels, to take ownership of a process. Kaizen teams become more passionate, trained, and committed, and are often now motivated in new ways. That is something even skeptics of Kaizen can't ignore.

So with kaizen now defined, how do we Kaizen?

Kaizen is all about producing change, with a bias toward action. Instead of waiting for the perfect solution to magically appear, we say, "What can we do to make the situation better, now?"

It's much better to have an 80% solution today than wait for a 90% solution tomorrow. That 90% tomorrow never comes. George Patten, the famous WWII general, definitely understood this. He said, "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."

That doesn’t mean we don’t plan, though. The best change comes with comprehensive, effective planning. To this end, a kaizen needs a charter document, with a problem statement, clear scope boundaries, and the metrics we want the team to improve. Notice this list, though, doesn’t include a “solution statement”. Why bring a cross functional team together if not to have them solve the problem in the way they see best? As Steve Jobs said of Apple, “We don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

So, with good planning, resulting in a good charter, resulting in a good, cross-functional team to execute the kaizen, what should happen during the kaizen? How should it flow?

Personally, I always ensure that the team starts with the same Lean vocabulary so that when I ask if a process step is “value-added”, we can all come to the same answer for the same reasons. To get that level of alignment requires at least a little bit of training. From there, we go to the actuals. For whatever problem the team is working to improve, go to the actual place, talk to the actual people running the actual process. Everyone on the team needs to see the process running to begin to truly understand the process and how we can work together to fix it.

With that understanding of the current state, create a process map from it to (1) document that understanding and (2) to literally be able to step back and see what parts of the process aren’t working well. It’s amazing what a few sticky notes on some butcher paper can achieve to further a team’s understanding and focus.

Next, envision a future, or desired state. Not the ideal state, not the perfect state, but the “by the end of the week” state. It may be helpful to discuss the ideal state briefly, so that the team can be confident the “end of the week” state is en route to that ideal, but don’t get bogged down in trying to boil the ocean in a kaizen. Get the team to focus on an achievable, yet aggressive, future.

With that desired state now agreed upon, we can then figure out the gap between our current state and the desired state. Knowing this gap gives the team much better focus on how to bridge the gap, and brainstorming commences. Remember, in brainstorming, there are NO BAD IDEAS. Every idea you squash probably prevents 10 ideas from being spoken. There are no bad ideas, no bad questions, just bad decisions, and the more ideas and questions that are put forth, the more confident we can be that we’re making good decisions on what to improve.

Everything up until now typically takes about a day and a half, and so it’s typically at about 2pm on Tuesday that things can get tough. With brainstorming done, and a general direction selected, now we need to get into the details. How, exactly, are we going to bridge that gap? What needs to happen for it to all come together? To stay on track, in just a few hours now, the team needs to be able to brainstorm further to flesh out all the details, then put together an implementation plan, a detailed checklist of everything the team wants to get done. Staring down the barrel of that deadline can be daunting, so encourage the team, that they can and will get it done, and that they’ll be proud of what comes of it.

With an implementation plan in place, now it’s time to go implement it in just a couple of days. This is where the magic of kaizen really happens. With typically only 2 days allocated to implementation in a kaizen, how can any team get anything meaningful done? It’s all in the math. Let’s say a kaizen team is small with only 5 team members. Even with that small team, each 8-hour day together is a full 40-hour man-week of improvement. 2 days. 2 weeks of improvement effort. Sometimes those days are longer, and closer to 10 hours. If you have 8 people on your team, which is closer to the norm, each 10-hour day is 80 hours of improvement effort. In two days together, you accomplish 4-weeks of improvement. That’s the magic of kaizen.

Throughout the implementation, though, be sure to be running the new process, testing the new process, and documenting the new standard work of the new process. Sustainability is always the hardest part of any change, and process controls like standard work must be in place to prevent people in the process from simply going back to how they did things before.

Through all this, we must also continue to apply the Deming cycle, which you may know as PDCA. Plan-do-check-act, or as I like to call it, plan-do-check-adjust, is just the scientific method applied to our improvements. After we've made something better, we need to check to see if things really are better. That way, we can act or adjust and learn from our mistakes.

Please also don’t omit the step of documenting the work that was done in some sort of report-out document, typically a PowerPoint deck. Report-outs are very beneficial for those who were not part of the effort and who either 1) want to horizontally deploy it in other parts of your organization, or 2) want to take the work further in a later improvement of the improvement.

Finally, as a leader in your organization, please, please, please recognize the efforts of the team and thank them profusely, even if the outcome isn’t as fantastically profound as you might have hoped. Everyone is watching how you respond to their hard work, and nothing will squelch future teams more than watching, or even just hearing about a leader berating a team, especially behind their backs. I have never regretted thanking people for their efforts, and I’m confident that can be true for you too.

Well, I’m about out of time, so we’ll conclude this video here. If you’d like to know more about kaizen, please us at or reach out to me via LinkedIn.

Next week’s video will be “What is Value?” Until then, thanks for watching, and thanks for celebrating Opgrade’s 10th anniversary with us.

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