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.