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Kaizen Learning vs. Traditional Problem-Solving

by Art Byrne
December 10, 2015

Kaizen Learning vs. Traditional Problem-Solving

by Art Byrne
December 10, 2015 | Comments (32)

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 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.

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.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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32 Comments | Post a Comment
Daniel Jones December 10, 2015
8 People AGREE with this comment

One of the best posts yet. Goes to the heart of what distinguishes lean from all the other expert led improvement techniques, like Six Sigma, TOC etc etc. - ie. building an army of problem solvers instead of relying on a few experts for imptovements.



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Thanks Dan for your comment. I think a major problem is that the kaizen learn by doing approach is so far from the traditional expert led problem solving method that it has trouble getting traction in most organizations.



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Mark Graban December 10, 2015
4 People AGREE with this comment

I'm not sure that "Six Sigma is part of the Lean toolbox."

If it is... it's essentially optional. 

Toyota factories don't use formal Six Sigma, but they do use statistical quality improvement tools and methods. Other parts of Toyota do combine Lean and Six Sigma.

The best Lean healthcare examples, such as ThedaCare and Virginia Mason, aren't using Six Sigma at all... but they mistakenly get labled as "Lean Sigma" by people who don't know any better.

One can use statistical methods without the formality, belts, and bureaucracy of Six Sigma.



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Sabine Gowsy December 10, 2015

So true Mark, and often forgotten too...

Sab



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Fernando Calderón December 10, 2015

I'm also agree with Mark.

And congratulations for Art. A very good post.



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Mark,I agree with you. I think of what others call Six Sigma as being nothing more than statistical process control. It is a good tool or method to use on certain processes but doesn't need to have the formality of green belts and black belts associated with it to be effective. We used it at Wiremold to solve certain problems but never tried to "certify" anyone. It was more about learning how to solve problems.



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Sabine Gowsy December 10, 2015

Thanks a lot Art!

Develop your everyone, everyday, everywhere! 

Develop and trust in your people!

 

Sab



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Sabine, you are right. Lean is all about people. The leverage comes from getting everyone to be a problem solver everyday. That can't happen if people are punished every time they make a mistake. Encourage failure and learn from your mistakes.



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Luc Lachance December 10, 2015

Great post! I especially like the part about not stepping on other silos toes. I believe that one of the major blocks for the kaizen approach is the ROI commotion.



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Luc, you are correct. Blocking all improvement until you do a detailed ROI on every move will get you no where. We never allowed ROI's on our kaizen efforts. "Just do it" is the right approach.



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Karen Martin December 10, 2015
6 People AGREE with this comment

Excellent post, Art! Responding to a few of the comments. In terms of Six Sigma being part of Lean, here's how I typically explain it: the analytical tools that are commonly taught in Six Sigma programs have been used for decades by those companies that we consider to best examples of applying Lean thinking to how they do business. In fact, these companies used the tools we characterically see in Six Sigma programs long before they became known as "Six Sigma tools."

I also explain that there's so much to teach about Lean, that most Lean programs don't go deeply into the tools that are less frequently needed--and aren't needed by every single person who's learning about improvement.

My biggest beefs with the whole "Lean Sigma debacle" as I refer to it are three-fold:

1. The unknowing (most leaders, most recruiters, most HR staff) falsely believe that people receiving belts of any color are exposed to and proficient in Lean, whereas most Lean Sigma programs include very little Lean. I say this a bit tongue in cheek but, at the very least, these programs should be renamed Sigma Lean.

2. Comingling Six Sigma tools with Lean has fueled the misperception that Lean is solely a process design methodology.

3. The largest hurdle in deploying Lean is the cultural element. Mindsets and behaviors--from the frontlines to senior leaders--have to shift for Lean to work as intended. Most Six Sigma programs are light on this subject if they address it at all.

I believe that decoupling Lean and Six Sigma would do the world a world of good.



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France Bergeron December 12, 2015
2 People AGREE with this reply

So true Karen.  When Lean is understood as science, a solid, rigourous approach to optimize flow, we are getting away from the tool based, colored belts and experts.

Lean and Six Sigma are on 2 different ends of the knowledge spectrum.  Six Sigma is positivism and Lean is social constructionism.  Lean is collaborative science.  Everyone socially constructs the definition of the problem and together find countermeasures.  Six Sigma has experts telling you how to solve problems.  Water and oil that don't mix!

I once received this email which support your point #1: "The organisation I am working for is a classic example of how and why the lean belt system fails. The organisation paid for 30 (out of 300) employees to get their green belts. This was two years ago. Only one improvement activity "kaizen" day was conducted and the staff have no clue how to embed continuous improvement in their daily tasks."

I agree, we need to decouple Lean and Six Sigma.



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

France, I love your example. Ten percent of the workforce are green belts and there are no results. If you took all the man hours needed to train 30 green belts and instead used them to do kaizen you would have had some great results.



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Karen, great comment. I agree that de-coupling Lean and Six Sigma would help a lot. People get very confused about this. The problem of course is that Six Sigma fits the way most traditional companies go about problem solving. Kaizen/lean with its mixed teams and instant results does not.



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Joseph Baladi December 10, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Very good post. I took particular note of the closing reference to “culture”. Kaizen will not just change culture. For it to succeed (and ultimately impact – again- culture) it requires a pre-existing type of culture that welcomes it and allows it to take root in the first place.



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Joe, your correct, I was a little too abrupt with that comment. Kaizen and the learning that comes out of it for everyone will go a long way to changing a culture but it can't happen if management is resistant to a cultural change. The good thing is that kaizen is a major factor in changing the attitudes of mananagement. At least those that still have brains.



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Mohan Boovaragan December 11, 2015

Nice article.I completely agree with your views on Six Sigma .Kaizen approach involves every one and Learing by doing makes every one higly motivated .

Thanks for sharing your thougths..



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Mohan, You hit the right point there. Learning by doing does get people very motivated. The best ideas for improvement always come from the people who do the work. Kaizen helps get these ideas implemented and this is very motivational to the worker whose ideas in the past have fallen on deaf ears.



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Pascal JOLLY December 12, 2015

Probably the biggest difficulty for big companies is to leave these bieliefs. Buying complex methods, developping systems,finding THE solution have to be abandoned.

Thanks, Art for this true analysis



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015
Pascal, You're right most companies, especially big ones, are looking for the "Silver Bullet" solution. Quick, just do it, kazen actions are completely foreign to them.


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Pratik Desai December 12, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Thanks Art. Your post triggered my curiosity to look back and self-evaluate our approach in practicing Lean.  Over a decade of practicing lean did we really used ‘Learning by doing” or traditional problem solving method?

We form cross functional teams but focus is to get participation from people actually doing the work.  We get members time pre-approved  before kaizen blitz workshop starts.  Anyone wants to skip meeting? Well they are answerable to facilitator, leader and sponsor. We made it little painful process to skip kaizen meeting but still happens sometimes.

We have action plans categorized as JDI (just do its), Priority A and Priority B. Implementation starts during kaizen days. Priorities are just to make sure we work on important improvements first.

 Our Kaizen Blitz workshops are straight 5 days. Sometimes it is 3 days within 5 days.

No approvals needed from senior management (SMT) unless major investment requested by Kaizen teams (which is very rare). Senior management presentations are mainly to provide update on “what we are implementing” and “Current Implementation Status”. One of the SMT member sponsors kaizen and fully engaged from start to end.

 Our point Kaizen are another form of JDIs in which people doing the work come up with ideas and are fully empowered and supported to implement immediately. System kaizen were not rapidly implemented but most completed within a range of 3-6 months. However we do have some outliers extended beyond 12 months.

 With over 85+ kaizen blitzes (most sustaining), numerous point kaizen and increasing participation rate from organization, I think our approach can be ranked more towards “learn by doing’.  I am inspired to improve further and make it to 100% “learn by doing”



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Thanks for your comments. It sounds like you are going down the right path. Making attendance on kaizen teams mandatory is something we did as well. I may have gotten it wrong but if you have only done 85 kaizens over 10 years you are going way too slow. You should think in terms of doing two kaizens per week per facility.



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Pratik January 03, 2016

Art, Thanks for your feedback. I like 2 kaizen per week target.

85+ are just system Kaizens covering multiple processes in our value streams. We also have many more point kaizens and small improvements implemented, sustained and continuing journey at a stable rate. 

 



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art byrne January 04, 2016

Pratic, thanks for clarifying. It sounds like you are on the right path. Two kaizens per week per facility is a very good goal but is not that easy to do.When we had an outside consultant facilitating we could run four kaizens in a week. That ment we had three weeks to run four more kaizens to meet the target for the month. Our internal kaizen promotion office could easily meet this target. During our peak season which lasted about four months however it was very difficult to get at the equipment to do a lot of kaizens as we didn't have enough capacity. As a result we focused more on office kaizens and warehouse kaizens during this period and the number of kaizens fell of to 2-3 per month. Keep pushing. Regards, Art.



Gil Nelson Padama December 17, 2015

Nice article Art. I have been practicing Kaizen in our Production line and the very challenging problems I always encounter is teaching/preaching the Kaizen principle. Most of the companies are buying the idea that Six Sigma is far better than Lean since Six Sigma has green belt or black belt guru. But you are correct in your observation that "lean by doing" can make a significant change or improvement in a matter of days compared to month long study before you can make your first improvement. The most important benefit of using lean is that you can make small changes on a certain area, test the result and then you can do parallel implementation to the whole area/group. It just need the cooperation of the group to make it successful.  



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Gil, I'm with you. Green belts and black belts tend to be trained in statistical problem solving. That is not lean. Give me a good Kaizen Promotion Office anyday. Your running a business not a karate class.



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bominda December 18, 2015

Good article 

When going top to bottom I remember reality and what need to change. Change for good/ better. 
What i am practicing is i place the problem with the team who responsible to get a solution and when they need guide help them. This makes lot success slowly but gradually than team separate acting on. Helicopter team given solutins most of the times having distabances from the working team. 



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Bominda, you can get results this way but it is far better to give the team specific stretch targets that they need to hit by the end of the week. You then need to work with them and help them reach the targets.It is hard for them to do this on their own as traditional thinking will almost always get in the way.



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Art Byrne December 21, 2015

Bominda, you can get results this way but it is far better to give the team specific stretch targets that they need to hit by the end of the week. You then need to work with them and help them reach the targets.It is hard for them to do this on their own as traditional thinking will almost always get in the way.



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Paul Beven December 18, 2015

Great Post!



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Ben A January 04, 2016

Art - Fantastic article. I'm coming to the party a bit late, but better late than never.

I completely agree with the discussion on lean vs sigma. I've been through the green belt rigmarole and when it comes down to it, you are investing valuable man-hours training a select few to essentially 'hold up the earth'. I've worked in environments where we have even gotten so far as ordaining  'yellow belts', and set the lofty target of every employee doing two per year, or else! Let's not forget that we can't release our green belt's anymore because we are 'struggling for resource'. If ever there was a need for a shake up. 80% of the brains you have worked so hard to recruit are 'barred' from making meaningful change

With respect to kaizen, I think your comment to one of the posters reflects the right attitude. 2 kaizens a week (for example). It forces a change in mentality, because it is impossible to achieve by the traditional approach of gathering comittee after comittee to sanction resource and buy off the event. 

On reflection, I beleive it needs strong leadership to shift the organizational machinery. I would like to ask if you have ever seen a case where there was successful transition to lean thinking where executives/senior leadership weren't in the game?



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art byrne January 04, 2016

Beth, thanks for your input and excellent examples. You are certainly correct that it is a waste of time to spend a lot of money training "green belts and black belts" and then decide that you ar just to busy to take them off their regular jobs to do improvement activities. I always ask the question, "How can you say you are too busy to get better?" Unless someone does something to break through this silly way of thinking everyone will always be "too busy to get better." That is why it takes leadership to implement lean. To your question I have never seen a company convert to lean without strong leadership at the top forcing it to happen. The target of two kaizens per week per facility is a very difficult one to attain but that is the whole point. You have to stretch and get out of your comfort zone to get better. Thanks for your comments. Art.



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