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Bruce Hamilton


Kaizen Revisited

Only tacit learning can teach managers the real power of kaizen

Published: Thursday, February 2, 2017 - 13:02

Here is an article I wrote 10 years ago, recently resurrected from the lost letter file. I can’t remember why I wrote it or for whom. Originally titled, “What is Kaizen?” the article still resonates with me as I hope it will with you.

My study of TPS has been guided by book learning, tacit learning, and more good luck than bad. One stroke of good luck occurred in February 1987, when I picked up a copy of Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success (McGraw-Hill Education, 1986), by Masaaki Imai. At that time, most literature about TPS was focusing on its technical aspects, so this book, which focused on harnessing ideas and creativity, was different.

Also around that time, early TPS efforts at my company were foundering. We had “lowered the water level of inventory to expose the rocks,” and to our dismay were discovering more rocks than we’d bargained for. We needed more problem solvers, and Imai’s book quickly became a blueprint for individual and small-group improvements that bailed us out of troubled waters. It was truly good luck that led me to Imai’s definition of kaizen, which I’ll paraphrase as “many small improvements that come from the common sense and experience of the people who do the work.”

Thus, many small improvements chipped away at and eventually dislodged the rocks that threatened to sink our TPS efforts. As a manager, my tacit learning from this experience was that shop-floor employees were brilliant and creative—some more than others, but all of them smart, proud of their work, and extremely willing to be problem solvers. Of course, there are a lot of books that tell managers that, but that’s academic. To really understand it we have to practice it. While Imai explicitly described the nature of kaizen with many tangible examples, he was quick to point out that understanding kaizen requires practice: learning by doing. Toyota refers to this as “tacit learning” as opposed to academic or book learning.

Anyone who has learned to ride a bike can understand what tacit learning is. It’s visceral and emotional as well as intellectual. It’s not academic. And I had a serious need for more problem-solvers. So there was another stroke of luck: Our self-inflicted crisis (hitting the rocks) created a need—and opportunity—to take a chance. While I like to think of myself as egalitarian, if there had not been a crisis, the opportunity to expand the problem-solving role beyond a few support personnel and supervisors might not have occurred.

Never-ending improvement—that’s kaizen. This is what I learned by “riding the bike.” But the common translation of “continuous improvement” doesn’t do it justice because it doesn’t connote the changes that also occur within the persons who have created the improvement. The act of being creative to solve a problem or make an improvement has not only educated us but also inspired us to go further. Now tacit learning kicks in again: Concerns by supervisors that work will not get done are replaced by more time to do work. Unfounded fears that “employees will mess up” give way to positive anticipation. More ideas from more employees offered more freely and more frequently generates an organizational confidence to do more than what was previously thought possible. Every day is a day for more improvement.

My tacit learning? That kaizen is for “Everybody, Everyday” (GBMP’s slogan.) The momentum and pace of improvement is governed by the breadth and depth of learning and participation of every single person in the organization. True, there are some employees with more ideas than others, but the act of each and every employee offering his or her creativity changes the organization.

All of this learning proceeded from a definition of kaizen offered by Masaaki Imai. Unfortunately not everyone subscribes to his definition. The notion of “small changes,” it seems, was a turn-off to managers looking for faster progress, those who subscribed to the “big brain” theory: breakthrough and innovation emanating from the creativity of just a few smart people. The idea that many small ideas from the shop floor were going to make any difference at all was (and still is) summarily dismissed. This is indeed unfortunate because even though its success has been documented countless times during the last three decades, only tacit learning can teach managers the real power of kaizen.

To parody an old proverb: “You can lead the manager to the shop floor, but you can’t make him see.”

And sometimes you can’t even lead him to the shop floor.

The word “small” is really a misnomer, perhaps a bad translation from Japanese, because while the cost of the small changes may be small, the effect may be huge. I have witnessed many small changes that were worth 10 dollars and many that were worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. As one former skeptic reported to me recently, “I can only assume that the dramatic improvements in quality are attributable to the small changes we made, and these summed up to a gain I would not have imagined.” Tacit learning.

Another manager in the same conversation stated, “We’ve made more significant headway in the last six weeks than in the previous six years!” Tacit learning for her: Many small changes for the better add up to improvement much faster than we think.

Still, many managers remain immune to this evidence. The big-brain theorists have morphed kaizen into events. Not something done by everybody, everyday, but something done apart from the work, largely organized and directed by people other than those who do the work.

I first witnessed this practice in 1989 as a visitor in another New England manufacturer at a week-long “kaizen event” billed as “five days and one night.” I was invited as a participant, even though I did not work at the company and knew nothing about its factory. Coming from a situation where improvements were mostly grassroots-generated and -implemented, I found the whole situation stunning. Employees from the work center where I was participating were tangentially involved at best. Most stood sullenly on the sidelines. One employee confided to me that they would change everything back after we left. He referred to the process as the BOHICA method, an acronym that I will not expand (but you can guess.) In this situation employees had become objects rather agents of change, a situation all-too-comfortable for many managers. For these employees kaizen meant “messes created by managers that produced fabricated gains.” Implicit in their understanding of kaizen was that management had no regard for employee initiative or creativity, that all of the ideas were coming from the big brains.

Subsequent to that experience I’ve heard the term kaizen used as a euphemism for job-cutting and outsourcing, and as a task force method to “get workers to work harder.” Several years ago I had to even sign a contract before I started to work with a company stating that I would never use the word kaizen in the presence of employees. So distasteful was their previous experience, that managers worried employees would become enraged.

Less damaging, but still confusing, is a growing tendency to break kaizen into “minor” and major,” a token gesture made most often to allow a certain number of nonmandated improvements and to differentiate them from the “real” events. Others shoehorn every capital investment into the kaizen court. Some might be kaizen, some innovation; but even a warehouse expansion has qualified with one company as a “major kaizen.” (I thought that was waste of storage.)

Companies that can afford it are establishing mezzanine departments to foster kaizen, but too often only those in the new department are focused on improvement. Managers and supervisors distance themselves, and the whole process becomes an extracurricular activity. In these environments no real change is occurring to the organization. It’s status quo, business as usual.

A respected friend in the TPS business remarked to me recently that maybe the term kaizen is itself becoming a point of confusion, that maybe it has been carved up too many times and now, like “continuous improvement,” is devoid of meaning or emotive power. This, the word that Massaki Imai explained 30 years ago is the “key to Japan’s competitive success.”

Sadly, my friend may be right; maybe we need a new name. We’re good at renaming Toyota words, after all. If such a move could enlighten us and direct our thinking to Imai’s definition, I’d support it. But for me, it’s still, and will always be, kaizen: many small (but organization transforming) improvements that come from the common sense and experience of the people who do the work. Everybody. Every day.


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.