How Does Kaizen Differ From A Kaizen Event?

The title of this post is a search term that hit the site today. It’s an interesting question – and interesting that it gets asked.

“Kaizen” is now an English word (it’s in the OED) and defined as such:

Definition of kaizen in English:

NOUN

A Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc.

Origin

Japanese, literally ‘improvement’.

 

Let’s talk a bit about that “Japanese, literally ‘improvement” bit.

Jon Miller of the Kaizen Institute was raised in Japan and offers up this nice breakdown of the meaning behind the meaning:

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Jon explains:

•Kai = Change is made from two characters “self” and the picture “to whip”. You can see the stripes across the poor fellow’s back.So Change is something you do to yourself.

•Zen = Good. In this case a sacrificial lamb which means “righteous” is offered between two characters for “word”. In this case word = clear and precise speech. So good sacrifice with precise speech all around it is “Good”. The Zen character we are using today is a simplified version. Also, Zen in this case is not the same character as Zen Buddhism.

•Kaizen = Change for the better. Or in our case whip yourself so that you can make a nice sacrifice and always have clear speech / thoughts surrounding you. Smile

As I understand it, in vernacular Japanese, “kaizen” is regarded as a business term. The word is not used in day-to-day context.

From Jon’s explanation, there is also a very personal aspect to it. Change is something you impose on yourself.

With all of that, “kaizen” is simply a word that generally refers to any systematic disciplined activity of improvement.

Kaizen Events

Now things get tricky, because here in the West, we have often regarded “kaizen events” and “kaizen” as the same thing. They aren’t. While you can certainly make improvements with kaizen events, that isn’t the only way to improve things, and I’ll add it isn’t necessarily even the best way.

A typical Western kaizen event (and there are lots of variations, though most companies that use them tend to impose fairly rigorous attempts to standardize them) is a 5 day focused effort with a 100% dedicated team.

The kaizen event leader is usually a specialist whose job is to plan and lead these things, identifies an improvement opportunity. He might be tasked by shop floor management to tackle a chronic or painful problem, or might be executing the “lean plan” that calls for a series of implementation events.

It is his job to plan and execute the event and to bring the expertise of “how to make improvements” to the work force and their leaders.

Here’s the Problem

The full-time kaizen event leaders typically get really good at seeing improvement opportunities, organizing groups for improvement, and quickly getting things done. They get good at it because they do it all of the time.

The area supervisors might be involved in a kaizen event in their area a few times a year if that. Some companies target having each employee in one kaizen event a year.

That’s 40 hours of improvement. All at once. The question is: What do they do (and learn) the other 1900 hours that year?

What do they do when something unexpected happens that disrupts the flow of work? Usually kaizen events don’t deal with how to manage on a day-to-day basis other than leaving an expectation for “standard work” in their wake.

But “standard work” is how you want the work to go when there aren’t any problems. When (not if) there are problems, what’s supposed to happen?

This is why many shop floor leaders think “kaizen” is disconnected from reality. Reality is that parts are late, machines break, things don’t fit, Sally calls in sick, and the assembler has to tap out threads now and then. In the hospital, the meds are late, supply drawers have run out, and there is a safari mounted to find linens.

These things are in the way of running to the standard work. They are obstacles that weren’t discovered (or were glossed over as “resistance to change”) during the workshop.

The supervisor has to get the job done, has to get the stuff out the door, has to make sure the patients’ rooms are turned over, whatever the work is. And nobody is carving out time, or providing technical and organizational support (coaching) to build his skills at using these problems as opportunities for developing his improvement skills, and smoothing out the work.

So… sometimes, “kaizen events” implement changes, but don’t necessarily do much for that personal drive for improvement.

The Shift

We’re starting to see a shift, as we realize those front line leaders are actually the ones who need to be the experts. That’s where Toyota Kata comes in – as a tool to learn to coach those leaders so they learn to keep the improvement going rather than just fighting erosion and working around problems.

OK – it’s late, and this was actually a diversion from something else I’m working.

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