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The Benefits of Kaizen Learning vs. Traditional Problem-Solving

by Art Byrne
November 18, 2020

The Benefits of Kaizen Learning vs. Traditional Problem-Solving

by Art Byrne
November 18, 2020 | Comments (10)

Lean offers a fundamentally different approach to problem-solving than most traditional companies practice. It’s a “learn-by-doing” method that involves the people doing the work in improving the work right now. Most companies delegate important problems to teams of experts that take months to create a plan and even longer to get lasting improvements.

Most companies approach problem-solving or improvement activities by forming a team. While cross-functional, the team Lean's emphasis on kaizen offers a fundamentally different approach to problem-solving than most companies practice today.will probably consist primarily of salaried employees. These important people are all very busy with their day jobs. As a result, the team will start out with a plan to meet once per week to address the situation they have been assigned. As time goes on, however, two or three people will be missing from subsequent meeting because they were “too busy.”

As the team moves along, people will start to discuss various approaches or fixes to problems and goals. These proposals will often create additional requests for more data. After several months and extensive analysis, the team will agree on a plan. It’s worth noting that at this point, the entire output from the team is just a “plan.” Any actual change activities will take place some time in the future. But first, the plan will have to be reviewed and approved by senior management. And, nothing will have actually been done.

This risk-averse approach is pretty common at most companies. Management wants to make sure that any proposed changes have a high degree of certainty, and perhaps just as important, fit into the current way of doing things. Many times this means that you will have to respect the current functional departments or other management silos and not step on anyone’s toes.

Sticking with this old, slow, cautious approach won’t get you much change. It certainly won’t let you improve quickly. I think that the comfort most companies have with this traditional approach goes a long way in explaining why companies make the choices they do when they decide to go down the lean path.

Lets take Six Sigma for example. Many companies select Six Sigma as their fundamental approach to lean. This, of course, is wrong-headed. Six Sigma is one of the tools in the lean toolbox—but it is not lean. Most companies choose Six Sigma because it is very close to their traditional approach. And so for them, making the leap to lean is actually just a situation of doing essentially the same thing—only slightly better. Which is not lean at all. 

Traditional companies using Six Sigma as their lean approach will typically start by selecting a group of mostly salaried employees, including engineers and managers, to be trained in the statistical process-control tools that underlie Six Sigma. This will take a number of months. Once you have trained the first batch of “green belts” or “black belts” then you assign them various projects to work on over the next 3-6 months. They study, analyze and eventually find a solution to some problem you have been having. This is great and realizes some gains.

Adopting lean through a kaizen “learn-by-doing” approach is radically different—a “doing” activity as opposed to a “planning” activity.Unfortunately, this approach only goes after about 10-20 percent of the gains that are possible. Six Sigma might improve one step in a 20-step process, for example, but that doesn’t affect the organizational structure. If the 20 steps are in 20 different functional silos nothing important changes. You feel great that you now have a number of green belts and black belts but you still have a six-week lead-time. The basic status quo can be maintained. You get gains without discomfort. Nothing too radical. A good match for the traditional company that wants to improve but still stay in their comfort zone. The problem is you are running a business—not a karate class.

Adopting lean through a kaizen “learn-by-doing” approach is radically different—a “doing” activity as opposed to the “planning” activity described above. Equipment that you may not have moved since it was first installed in the plant 10 to 15 years ago will be moving by the afternoon of the first day. You will get dramatic results by the end of the first week. I have seen this happen over and over again. The main reason is that during a kaizen the team members are assigned full time for the week (or whatever the kaizen duration is). This short, intense effort focuses every person on obtaining some stretch goals in a set period of time—an approach that really distinguishes kaizen from any other problem-solving mindset. It is what makes it so powerful.

Before the traditional team holds its second planning meeting the kaizen team has already achieved significant improvements in your business. You get fixes, not plans. But there is a lot more going on here than just that. To begin with, a kaizen team includes a mixture of salaried and hourly employees (vs. the mostly salaried composition of the traditional team, meaning that the people who actually do the work are improving the work, along with the leader of their area. This gives the team the capacity to learn as they go along. The team also includes people who can implement things on the spot—such as maintenance, IT, building services, or other roles. The rest of the team can be managers, engineers, sales force members, union heads or whatever mix you think would be best. Because they are the people doing the work, they will naturally come up with the best ideas for improvement. That is why they need to be on the team.

In addition, having these people participate in the improvements will also help to insure that the changes stick. It also gives everyone a sense of empowerment and an excitement that positive changes can finally start to happen.

Kaizen is for doing and learning. You get rapid gains and it will change your culture.

Keywords:  kaizen,  leadership,  learning,  problem solving,  work
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10 Comments | Post a Comment
Ovidiu Contras November 23, 2020

Thank you Art for the important reminder. One aspect that I noticed relates to people's morale. While in the classical approach as time goes by, the morale goes down, for the kaizen approach, it is quite the opposite. It's unbelievable how energized the people become, largely due to the fact they see tangible positive results from their effort.



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art byrne November 23, 2020
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Ovi, thanks for the great insight. You are exactly correct. The big improvements that a kaizen creates in a short period of time really inspires people. Most of the best ideas for removing the waste comes from the people who actually do the work that is being improved. They feel that finally someone is listening to them and taking action. They want to do more. The people on the kaizen team from other parts of the team are also fired up. They want to go back to their own areas and use what they learned in the kaizen there. A "doing" activity like kaizen is vastly different from the traditional "planning" activities used by most companies. It is "learn by doing" with no time wasted. It is hard not to get excited about that.



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Ramiro Cabanas November 23, 2020

 Lean is a “learn-by-doing” method that involves the people doing the work in improving the work right now. Most companies delegate important problems to teams of experts that take months to create a plan and even longer to get lasting improvements.

Note the marked words above that make ALL the difference!

A mix of people doing the work, relevant experienced salaried employees, support technical people form a team that will create effective change on the spot with the added benefit of having ownership of the changes thus guaranteeing sustainability and future improvement orientation.



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art byrne November 26, 2020

Ramiro, thanks for your nice addition to the post. Your highlighted words, "right now vs. take months" emphasize the difference between lean and the traditional approach to problem solving. As I said in the post the best ideas for removing the waste will come from the people doing the work not the "teams of experts." As a result there is ownership of the changes and the results will stick.



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John Gallagher November 24, 2020

Wash, rinse repeat... The Kaizen approach is so important.  This message from Art is very true and one that needs to be brought out over and over.  The Kaizen event is THE engine for change.  As he states, it is not a planning event, but a CHANGE event.  But, the message is even more important to continue to share.  Nothing in this blog is 'new', but it is very important.  Thanks, Art.  Wash-rinse-repeat 



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art byrne November 26, 2020

John, I'm glad you enjoyed the post even though you make it sound like we were talking about washing machines! Just kidding. Your main point of course is very important. Using kaizen as the main driver of change. I'm always amazed at how easily companies and consultants want to move on from kaizen to "the next best thing." This is all wrong headed. If you strive for a goal of doing two full week kaizen events per week at each facility you will make very significant improvements. As soon as you slack off on kaizen things will drift backwards as the organization trys to revert to "the way we have always done things."



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Ricky Mankavech November 25, 2020

I agree completely with your message here. The Kaizen methed creates improvements much faster than the slow traditional method. The act of actually doing something is much more effective than the planning activities that take much longer and do not change as much. People following the kaizen approach are much more likely to see improvements before the traditional method would even get out of the planning phase. I also believe people like the kaizen approach more because they get to actually see their work making change right away and it inspires them to keep working hard.



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art byrne November 26, 2020

Ricky, thank you for your comments. You are correct that people like the kaizen approach better because they get direct and immeadiate feedback on their efforts to improve. I think that the composition of the kaizen team is an important contributor to this. We always had half hourly and half salaried participants. Having a couple of people who actually do the work your trying to improve is very important. Also having people on the team who can make physical changes right away, like electricians, maintenance or tool room staff facilitates the "do it now" emphasis of a kaizen. At the end of the week you will have made significant and lasting changes.



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Scott Winter December 01, 2020

Before reading this post, I couldn't quite put my finger on the specific challenges I'm experiencing.  You have nailed some of the underlying characteristics I'm seeing in our company. It is so helpful to have a good outside perspective when approaching lean transformations. Thank you for your post!



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art byrne December 01, 2020

Scott, thanks for your comments. I'm glad the post was helpful. It is not surprising that your company uses the traditional approach to problem solving. Most companies do. It is not that you won't get some improvements. You will. It just will take a long time and the changes will be sub optimal vs. what the kaizen approach produceses in a very short period of time. Try it, you'll like it.



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