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You Can't Kaizen Chaos

by Danielle McGuiness
December 9, 2014

You Can't Kaizen Chaos

by Danielle McGuiness
December 9, 2014 | Comments (5)

The other day, Planet Lean shared an article about an autopsy lab in Barcelona that Mark Reich and I had recently visited this past summer. I smiled reading it because I was quickly reminded about how their solutions were not fancy ones, but easy countermeasures that worked for them and really made a difference.

For example, you'll see a picture of their boots hanging by a string from a PVC pipe… Here was something that got boots off the floor so that the housekeeping staff could clean the floor without having boots in the way. Similarly, their intake area is a simple desk with the minimal paperwork and a pen. Nothing fancy - no lights, or moving fixtures - but here was a simple countermeasure to a problem that they were trying to solve. A problem that was getting in their way of doing the work.

Why does this matter? I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in questions about what Lean is. While this is no doubt important, practice is just as important. The lengthy and theoretical conversations that can happen in the lean community make me nuts sometimes. They have a way of distracting from the work and running circles around the people who are actually doing the work.

We all agree that there are components of building a continuous improvement organization - having your focus be on Purpose, Process, and People. But is it possible that we’re overcomplicating things? For example, the very specific methodologies Toyota uses around problem solving and standardized work are complex and multifaceted, and they’ve done wonders for Toyota... But so many of our organizations aren’t Toyota and we never will be. How do we use Toyota as a good example of lean thinking, and still find our own way?

Similarly, I often wonder if we get so fascinated with tools (value stream mapping! A3 thinking!) that we jump right over doing the hard work of building a stable process. You can’t kaizen chaos on top of chaos - it just doesn’t happen. Or well, I suppose you can, but it doesn’t do you or your organization any good.

In LEI’s Lean Transformation Model, the framework we use for working with our Co-Learning Partners, we talk about “assumptions or beliefs” at the base of the house. As a coach, this is the part of the model I call out and name as having everything to do with “stability.”

I specifically remember working at a manufacturing site with another coach, when we found out that the operator who normally runs station 13 had called out sick. At the time, there was little job instruction and a poor plan for training. We weren’t able to watch the work of this specific operation/job and think about kaizen opportunities because the operator wasn’t there, her replacement didn’t know the work, and we had no way of finding out what the work entailed until the original operator came back.

This simple story is a good reminder for all of us to ask ourselves if we even have enough stability of our processes to begin improving them. Are we operating in chaos or do we have a handle on what the work is, what the main problems are, whose responsibilities are whose, who can offer help/support if trouble arises, and how we work together as a team? Are our work processes documented? Made visual? Easy to communicate to others? Do we have ways of knowing when a problem occurs, “stopping the line,” and stepping back to problem solve?

As a student not just of lean thinking, but of learning, I don’t know that any of this is more than just a rant. But I wonder if lean have to be something different than just how we do our daily work. If we think of it this way, as the way we do our daily work, might this make it easier to start improving our work right now (when it really matters)? 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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5 Comments | Post a Comment
Vitezslav Pilmaier December 09, 2014
7 People AGREE with this comment
A very nice article - actually in our team we have a very simple approach as a baseline:

You can not Kaizen without knowing what is efficient and what is not
You can not know what is efficient if there are no standards
You can not establish the standards without knowing the limits of work (H&S) and simply cleaning the mess up (5S)
You can not know the limits and what is needed (and what is garbage) without knowing well your process
You can not say you know your process, if you only know how it runs, but you have no idea why

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Mark Graban December 09, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment
I think there needs to be a basic level of stability before Kaizen can really be effective. For example, in many hospitals, the unfilled positions and understaffing leads to a really bad spiral... understaffing leads to more turnover, turnover means more understaffing, etc. If people don't have enough time to do their basic job well, they won't have time for Kaizen. At Toyota, people have "two jobs" - doing work and improving work. But, they make sure there is time available...

I think there also needs to be a modicum of trust in an organzation for Kaizen to take root. If employees don't trust their managers (or vice versa), you can't really have Kaizen...

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Lonnie Wilson December 10, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment
Almost everyone is familiar with the Ohno statement which is roughly, "there can be no kaizen if there is no standard".  However, almost as soon as they learn this, the conveniently fail to execute it and go about as you say, piling chaos on top of chaos.

Now when we attack any type of issue, even if it is just an evaluation,  we make two lists.  On the first one we list all deviations from standards and categorize them as (1) no standard (2) a standard that is not met  or (3) a standard that is not optimal.  The next thing we do is  aggressively attack all 1's and 2's.  the second list is the list of kaizens which is woven in when we have done the 1's and 2's.

And Danielle, you are correct, this is generally a bunch of hard basic work but this also the source of most opportunity.

Thomas Edison said it best,  

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Keep beating this drum, this is a key reason many companies are having trouble  with their lean transformations...they fail to first create stable flow at takt


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Lory moniz December 11, 2014
Great post Danielle!

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Jay Johnson December 15, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Anything we can do to make sense of work and take action to make it more human and less chaotic is making it better. I would say that that is the spirit of kaizen, if not the exact methodology of Kaizen.

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