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Ask Art: Aren’t You a Little “Old School” in Your Kaizen Approach To Implementing Lean Thinking?

by Art Byrne
March 13, 2019

Ask Art: Aren’t You a Little “Old School” in Your Kaizen Approach To Implementing Lean Thinking?

by Art Byrne
March 13, 2019 | Comments (18)

Well, I’ve been implementing lean in various companies, mostly manufacturing, since the very beginning of 1982. So, you are right: I am getting old, technically. But I certainly don’t feel old. I think old is a state of mind. And certainly when it comes to lean I don’t feel old, or “old school”, as you so nicely put it, at all. The things that worked for me as Group Executive at The Danaher Corporation, as CEO of The Wiremold Company, and in the private equity companies where I was Chairman while being an Operating Partner with J. W. Childs Associates still work today and are very effective.

I was taught the Toyota Production System (the word lean didn’t come about till 10 years later, talk about old) by the Shingijutsu consultants more than 30 years ago. This was three guys (eventually four) who had spent their careers at Toyota, the last ten of which they worked directly for Taiichi Ohno, the father of TPS. They were tough on us. They called us concrete heads (I guess we were) and said our factories were the worst they had ever seen (probably correct). The first thing they said to us was, “Everything here is no good, what do you want to do about it?” We didn’t argue or push back on this. We just said, “So show us how to fix it” and made a determination that we would do whatever they told us no matter how stupid it might have sounded at first.

They showed us the approach they were using with the Toyota Group companies and Toyota’s first tier suppliers. It was all about kaizen, kaizen, kaizen. They showed us how to organize a kaizen. Why it was important to set stretch goals for the kaizens and most importantly how to run a kaizen. We learned how to pick the right kind of kaizen team and make sure there was a mix of hourly and salaried people on the team (extremely important by the way). They gave us the forms needed to run a proper kaizen, like standard work sheets, standard work combination sheets, time observation forms and the like. They showed us how to run a proper leader’s meeting every afternoon reviewing the progress of the teams (many of the team leaders were “fired” during these meetings (not literally)). Most importantly, they showed us how to see the massive amounts of waste that were sitting there staring us in the face that we could not see.

They were on the floor with us all day long. We made sure we had dinner with them every night to pump them for more information. We heard many great Taiichi Ohno stories and we learned at a very rapid pace. They never talked to us about strategy or how to run our business. It was all about waste. Find the waste and get rid of it. Even so, from the very beginning we saw this as the greatest strategic weapon we had ever seen. We were getting tremendous gains with every kaizen. We were freeing up space and cash through inventory reduction, lowering costs, improving quality, increasing capacity, and lowering our lead times. Just as importantly we were getting tremendous employee buy in as people saw the benefits in safety, ease of work, better working conditions and a great sense of teamwork. Most importantly these kaizen events were a major source of learning for the entire organization. With teams that were 50% hourly and 50% salaried this learning really took place across the board.

As we eliminated waste the time it took to do anything/everything plummeted. We could compete in the market on our speed. Faster response to customer needs allowed us to gain market share and grow. As a result we came to know lean as a time-based growth strategy. Not only did lean help us speed up what we did, but we had lower costs, better quality and lower capital needs.

All companies, whether lean or traditional, have roughly the same strategies for things like growth, new products, entering new markets or doing acquisitions. Because of kaizen, however, the lean company can execute these strategies faster and at a lower cost. Without removing the waste, using kaizen after kaizen, and building a learning environment none of this is possible.

So, when you say “kaizen is old school” I think you are seriously off track. I understand why focusing on tools like A3 might be popular and trendy, but companies that focus on tools have a hard time getting out of the tools stage of lean; and rarely become lean enterprises. They are taking the easy way out. They want to implement something “lean” in say operations without changing anything else. Their sales approach, accounting systems, IT systems and HR approach all stay the same: traditional batch. Taking this approach will feel comfortable to most traditional companies. They are used to doing improvements by forming teams of mostly (usually all) salaried people who are assigned a project and spend weeks/months coming up with a plan. Getting the plan approved and implemented then takes another few months. All without the input from the people doing the work.

Six Sigma is another popular approach for a lot of companies that sticks with this traditional approach to solving problems. You take a bunch of salaried people and spend months training them. At the end of this you give them pretty colored belts. Next you send them forth to apply their new skills and solve various problems. They may spend six months studying, coming up with a plan and implementing it. You will get improvements but because the focus is mostly on one step in a twenty step process you will sub-optimize, and see little impact on the bottom line.

Kaizen turns this traditional approach on its head. It is a “learn by doing” approach that gets its strength from the fact that all the participants, including senior management, are on the kaizen full time for however long it lasts (one week is pretty standard). It is not a planning exercise. It is doing exercise. The teams are given stretch targets and expected to complete them by the end of the week. Many times they wind up beating these goals. So, at the end of each kaizen you have big results that have been implemented. Not a plan. More importantly, another group of your people have had a great learning experience. They have worked as a team and been amazed at what they were able to do. As you run more and more kaizens in every part of the company you start to make real progress toward becoming a lean enterprise. Everything must change!

So to me the issue isn’t that kaizen is old school. The issue is that companies are drifting away from this Toyota approach in order to slide back into their traditional study group of salaried employees trying to solve problems. What we need is to get back to the traditional Toyota approach; kaizen, kaizen, kaizen. Heck, we more than quadrupled Wiremold’s size and increased its enterprise value by just under 2,500% over about 10 years before I ever even heard about A3. I’m sticking with “old school”. It’s the newer approaches that aren’t working.

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18 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani March 13, 2019
4 People AGREE with this comment

Great post Art. When people ask me "What should I be doing?", I tell them: "Kaizen; practice Toyota's kaizen method. That is the most important thing." It is unfortunate that Toyota's kaizen method was not well understood outside those trained by Shingijustu. That's a pity, because Toyota's kaizen and IE methods are quite different than generic kaizen and traditional IE methods, as I too learned from Shingijutsu when I worked at Pratt & Whitney in the mid-1990s. As you know, the reason why in 2015 I wrote two books about Shingijutsu's kaizen method (https://tinyurl.com/yyany2wc) was because there was a huge void in people's understanding of kaizen, and also because there had been a great decline in kaizen practice in favor of other things. I am certain we would see more Lean transformations, such as what happened at Wiremold, if people practiced Toyota-style kaizen continuously.

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art byrne March 13, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Bob, thanks for your comments, they are a nice addition to the post. I agree with you. I think that for many companies it is much more comfortable to do things as close as possible to the traditional way they have always done them, i.e. form a study group of all salaried people to analyze and come up with a plan to solve some problem. Six sigma, A3, value stream mapping and other lean tools tend to fit this approach. Organizing and running a kaizen, especially one that has half its members from the hourly ranks does not. Also, because kaizen is a "doing" exercise not a "planning" exercise this just doesn't fit most companies traditional culture. It is too bad as they are missing out on the most powerful approach to eliminate waste and create a learning environment. Without kaizen, it is hard to see how a company can get out of the "tools" stage of lean and become a lean enterprise.

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George Scott, MHA March 14, 2019

Hi Bob & Art -

I would like to know what you mean by kaizen?  Are you referring to an Rapid Process Improvement (RPI) event or are you referring to something much more simple?  Any clarification would be greatly appreciated!


George Scott

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art byrne March 15, 2019
2 People AGREE with this reply

George, I've heard kaizen events called Rapid Process Improvement, Blasts and several other things because people are often averse to using any Japenese words. What I am refering to is a week long [the most common time frame] event that starts out with a definition of the current state, outlines some of the problems and then sets aggressive targets for what has to be completed by the end of the week. For example at Wiremold we were cutting set up time on almost any type of equipment by 85-90% by the end of the week. The kaizen teams are comprised of 8-10 associates of which half are hourly and half are salaried. There is a leader and a co-leader for each team. The taem members are full time on the kaizen for the week and often work very long days. There is a leaders meeting each afternoon at 4 pm to review progress and set targets for the next day. It is expected that the team will spend nearly all of its time at the actual work place and not in a conference room. By the end of the week a completly new approach is in place and operating. Any follow up items are assigned a date and a person responsible. I hope this helps.

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miguel March 13, 2019

Hi Art,

Excellent post as usuall.

Pity most of us haven't had the opportunity to work directly with Shingijustu. We can only imagine according to what we read.

Do you perhaps know if there are any available videos where we can see a Shingijustu kaizen event or at least just a small part?

Thank you as always for your posts.


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art byrne March 14, 2019

Miguel, thanks for your nice comments, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Unfortunately I don't know of any videos of Shingijutsu that I could direct you to but maybe some of the other readers of the post can. The closest I can come is to suggest you get my second book, The Lean Turnaround Action Guide. This is a step by step lean conversion of a ficticious company. In it are three chapters on specific kaizen, one on set up reduction, one on flow and one in the office [order entry]. These are all conducted the way Shingijutsu taught us years ago and have many of the specific forms they used to run the kaizens as well. As a result it should give you a pretty good idea of what was involved. 

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miguel March 17, 2019

Art, your 2nd Lean turnaround book is already at home for about a year now.

Excellent book by the way. 


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Ovidiu Contras March 15, 2019

Thank you for the great post Art! Very good reminder of what kaizen is all about. Unfortunately people stumble over the meaning of the word or other philosophical considerations, forgetting the purpose: making significant and sustainable positive change to your business, actually transforming the way you do business.

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art byrne March 15, 2019
2 People AGREE with this reply

Ovi, thanks for your comments. Your right that many people don't seem to understand kaizen. It is a "doing" activity not a "planning" exercise. Even when this is understood it isn't followed as it is too far removed from the traditional way of solving problems or making improvements.

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Noah Shepherd March 16, 2019

I think that in so many cases, management are worried about engaging (and empowering) the shop floor in problem solving. 

The reality is that the more engaged the whole operation is with its own processes, the easier it is to effect changes and improvements and to make them stick.

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art byrne March 16, 2019

Noah, thanks for your comments. I agree with you. Kaizen is a great way to empower the entire workforce and create a learning environment. Everyone is involved in eliminating the waste by improving every process. It's exciting to see and be part of very dramatic changes, like taking a set up from 3 hours to 1 minute. What is there to be afraid of? The scary thing is not removing the waste.

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Joe Ely March 18, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Art, thanks for the excellent article.   I had the magnificent opportunity to spend a week doing kaizen in August, 2002 at Wiremold's Philadephia facility, under the tutelage of Mary Pat Cooper, who invited me as "fresh eyes".   It taught me more about Lean than anything I had learned before or since.   She has remained an advisor and sensei to me since then, as I continue to implement Lean, now in the Medical Device industry.   Thank you for allowing that to happen then and continuing to write now.   

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art byrne March 19, 2019
2 People AGREE with this reply

Joe, thanks for your nice comments about the post. It was especially good to see your comments about Mary Pat Cooper. Her knowledge and enthusiasm for lean helped us tremendously at Wiremold. After she left and went into the lean consulting business we used her in our portfolio companies at J W Childs Associates when I was an operating partner there. Being successful at kaizen for any company requires a strong Kaizen Promotion Office [KPO] and that in turn relies on having excellent sensei like Mary Pat to show everyone how to see and remove the waste. Over all my years of doing lean it is hard to think of anyone with more knowledge and enthusiasm for this than Mary Pat. Thank you for recognizing her.

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Joe Ely March 21, 2019

You are most welcome, Art.   Appreciate your continued emphasis on kaizen, kaizen, kaizen.   We did this just this morning on our daily walkaround in one of our manufacturing areas.  Keep it up!

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Stephanie Reid July 15, 2019

I have had the utmost pleasure of working in the KPOffice with MaryPat and it warms my heart to see the impact she has had on others as her teachings and guidance still resonate with me today.

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art byrne July 18, 2019

Stephanie, nice comments about Mary Pat are always welcome. If every company had a bunch of MaryPats then we wouldn't have to have discussions on why so many companies fail when implementing kaizen. 

Eduardo Muniz March 21, 2019

People can't do something they don't know.

How can they do lean thinking when they have same old FAT thinking?

They can't learn how to do Lean Thinking by Osmosis.

It takes much more than reading a book or attending a quick Lean thinking workshop.

Thank you for sharing

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art byrne March 21, 2019
2 People AGREE with this reply

Eduardo, thanks for your comments. Your right, you can not go from FAT thinking to lean thinking by just reading a book or going to a seminar. Lean is only something you can learn by doing. In fact you have to do many kaizens before you really start to understand it. That's why kaizen is so important in converting to lean. It not only teaches eeryone a new way of thinking but is also the key to creating a learning organization. Learning organizations are very hard to beat as they are normally several steps ahead of everyone else.

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