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Harish Jose


Kaizen—Can It Go Wrong?

Change for the better must be better for everyone

Published: Wednesday, September 28, 2016 - 13:19

Kaizen is often translated as “continuous improvement” and identified as one of the core themes in lean. Today I’m pondering 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: “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-percent perfection. My point of contention on this is that kaizen should not be about local optimization. Local optimization means to make a process fully functional without taking the whole system into consideration. This leads to tremendous waste. The local improvement should not cause a problem in 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, Bob Emiliani, a professor of lean management, writes: “Kaizen means ‘change for the better.’ But, the context for ‘change for the better’ is multilateral, meaning change must be good for everyone (nonzero-sum outcome for both internal and external stakeholders), not good for you and bad for me (a zero-sum tradeoff).”

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 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 during downstream processes. The staff using those processes weren’t able to serve the higher number of clients adequately, which resulted in higher customer dissatisfaction and staff burnout.

Kaizen is a gradual and small incremental change toward the ideal state. The key point here is the “ideal state.” How would you define it? The ideal state means a perfect model; a situation exactly as one would wish for the organization as a whole. Taiichi Ohno, the creator of the Toyota Production System (TPS), spoke about standards that basically meant: no standards = no kaizen.

The standard defines the process at its current goal and has three elements:
1. Takt time—the defined rate of production to meet customer demand
2. Sequence of work—the defined sequence of work to ensure safety, quality, and efficiency
3. Standard work in process—the defined inventory required to ensure that the takt-time goal is met

One of Toyota’s goals is to improve overall efficiency, not local efficiency. You could say this defines the goal of kaizen: break the current state and create the new standard while keeping overall efficiency in mind. One of Ohno’s favorite ways to challenge the current standard is by asking to use fewer operators to achieve the same required output.

Management’s role

What is management’s role in all of this? Management has to lay the framework for everything to function properly. In The New Economics for Industry, Government Education (The MIT Press, second edition, 2000), W. Edwards Deming wrote: “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 the whole organization from a team that seeks to become a selfish, independent, profit centre.”

Final words

It’s important to view 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’ll finish by mentioning 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 a shoe on his right foot and a sandal on his left foot. For eight centuries, people have touched the statue’s right foot, which is more accessible (it sticks out more), and asked St. Peter for blessings. The simple act of touching and kissing wore the bronze down until all the toes on the right foot were gone. It is said there’s been a request for visitors to touch the left foot more.

It appears that the left foot has got a lot of catching up to do.

Always keep on learning.


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years of experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject-matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments, and publishes frequently on his blog Harish’s Notebook.