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Bruce Hamilton

Quality Insider

Practice Makes Permanent

Unproductive daily habits can counteract the benefits of kaizen events

Published: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - 11:18

In my last blog post, “Everybody Everyday” I made the case for regular practice of new perspectives, behaviors, and practices. All new learners begin by just “going through the motions” and gradually become proficient through regular practice. I’ve personally gone to sleep many nights pondering a new concept or thinking about a new skill only to awaken the next morning with greater understanding. It seems as though our brains actively reflect on the day’s experiences while we sleep. Each day of practice that we miss is therefore a day void of that particular learning. It’s time lost that cannot be made up by cramming. I’m not offering proof here, only my own repeated experience.

In the case of my 7-year-old son’s guitar lessons, I reminded him of this: Practice makes perfect.

In the case of lean learning, however, the challenge is much greater. Students are almost always already “practiced,” but at the wrong things. According to a friend of mine who manages several U.S. and Mexican lean implementations, “The Mexican employees are much more receptive to lean thinking because many have never worked in a factory before and have no idea that there is a nonlean way of producing.”

American workers and managers already have a well-established mental model of how a plant should run. They practice according to that nonlean model every workday. Roles, rules, and routines are played out according to a status quo game book. Ryuji Fukuda likens this vicious circle to a golfer with a bad golf swing going to the links every day to “perfect” his incorrect form. Practice does not really make perfect in that case—but it does make it permanent.

Then we tap those employees for a kaizen event. Even from an optimistic viewpoint, employees who participate in events only get to “sleep on” a few days of the new concepts. For the rest of the month, it’s back to business as usual. They sleep on that. Indeed, one of the arguments for event-type kaizen is that it enables suspension of status quo practices for a period of time in order to enable employees to experience a new way. But too often employees only get to go through the motions, not to really learn by doing.

“Come Monday, we’ll be back to where we were,” a production employee said to me at an event I attended. Unfortunately, if post-event homework is not completed, things may be worse on Monday. Employees in the “kaizened” area are left to pick up the pieces. And the tacit learning from this process? SOS. Employees sleep on that outcome as well. Some years ago I signed a contract with a manufacturer stipulating that I never utter the word “kaizen” in the presence of its employees, it so enraged them.

Still I regularly visit companies that gauge their success by the numbers of kaizen events. Next to 5S scores (a topic for another article), the “number of kaizen events” is perhaps the most prevalent corporate lean KPI. However, the majority of these event-counters cannot say that they have reduced inventories or shortened lead times or improved deliveries or profits beyond a one-time gain. They talk about the difficulty of “sustainment” and wonder aloud why it’s so hard to enculturate employees.

The truth is, when everybody practices status quo behavior almost every day, that is what is sustained. If employees are not practicing the new way every day, by default they are practicing the old. Practice makes permanent.


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; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.


Doing the wrong thing righter

The late Russell Ackoff used to discuss doing the wrong thing righter. Meaning, first we need to think about what is the right thing to do before improving, practicing, etc. We want to do the right thing righter and not the wrong thing righter.


Also, Dr. John Medina, author of "Brain Rules," discusses current theories in brain science about the brain learning during sleep. Based on your experiences, you may enjoy reading his book.