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Kaizen is Fun? Really?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I have been learning lean for three years now. My question to you: How is Kaizen 'fun'? Doing lean shakes people out of their comfort zone and challenges everything they believe about their work. Kaizen demands that they constantly improve what they do, and by implication, challenges how well they are working now. I find doing this on a daily basis to be extremely taxing. What advice do you have for me?

Thank you for this question. I get asked this a lot in many different ways. Believe me, I sympathize with your frustration, having gone through it myself! Once, a sensei of mine told me that he had complained to his Toyota sensei about having to repeat things endlessly. His sensei laughed and answered "at suppliers' it's easy - I represent the customer, so I only have to repeat things three times. Within Toyota, ten times!" So keep in mind that there's no avoiding a degree of agony. The whole point of lean is to make people think about their job while they’re harried and busy trying to get the products shipped or the service rendered. The question is not whether we can make it easy, but how we can make this challenging process rewarding.

Remember, first of all, that lean by its very nature forces you to deal with issues at several different levels, such as the technical and the personal. In terms of your specific question, you must deal with the individual psychological responses to lean (as people are taken out of their comfort zone) as well as the larger issue of making teamwork work. No small task.

Let's tackle the psychological issue first. Most of the time, all of us actually do very little thinking: we can run through an entire day on autopilot, operating out of routine habits and unconscious routines. Occasionally something new will interrupt our routine and force us to think - which is taxing. A new road sign on a familiar route, for example, challenges us. It brings the frontal cortex on line as opposed to the older brain systems, and it consumes energy, requires sugar, and is basically tiring. Of course, when we do come up with a smart solution, endorphins kick in and it feels really good. This certainly relates to Kaizen. Focusing people on problems is very hard work, and individuals seek quick easy fixes that feel gratifying. But the function of the Kaizen coach is to invariably to pop the balloon by showing how this solution is not in fact satisfactory. And so people end up angry, depressed, frustrated and ready to bite someone or leave the room and slam the door. It’s just chemicals.

The social issue is not any easier. For any meaningful group learning to occur, people must share what only they know, as opposed to discussing knowledge already held in common. But this requires, 1) that they're willing to talk and 2) that the others are willing to listen. Most leaders try to avoid scenes and social embarrassment by only discussing topics and facts that are already familiar to everyone - which is not particularly useful getting improvement moving. In fact, despite the best intentions of the coach, this approach generally does more harm than good, since it reinforces the feeling that nothing can be done, bolstering a shared sense of learned helplessness.

Few Kaizen coaches have explicitly been trained to deal with these two factors. It's usually "learn as you go". So when you find yourself carrying the emotional weight of these dynamics, no wonder you can feel a little drained at the end of the day. Are there remedies? Yes. Clearly there is no magic wand, but there ways to make progress. To start with, we can apply lean to ourselves - essentially Kaizen how we run Kaizen. Secondly, there are a few mental tricks one can practice as coping strategies that make the whole thing easier. As a result, I promise, Kaizen can be fun.

Let's start with the most important issue of all: what is the purpose of Kaizen? Why do we run these events? Why do we have a suggestion system? Surprisingly, the primary purpose of all this work is not to realize huge savings from the improvements. Toyota experts will tell you that Toyota doesn’t get that many immediate savings or value out of relentlessly seeking Kaizen effort from operators: most of the big bucks improvements are made by supervisors and manufacturing engineers. Workstation Kaizen accounts for a small part of this. So why pursue it so diligently? Because Toyota (and the customers who drive their cars) gets a massive quality and productivity benefit from people sticking to standardized work every cycle. If we count both variation and rework avoidance, this alone can explain the 15% productivity difference of lines supplying Toyota from those supplying other OEMs. It's extremely hard to force compliance in any work method on people, particularly if they feel their way is best and their pride in their work derives from how they do the job. Kaizen gets operators to first look objectively at the impact of different work methods, and second, gets them to agree on one preferred way of doing things. They follow standards, because they’re given good cause to do so. In short, the more regularly you conduct Kaizen activities, the more your people are engaged. As an outcome of this your numbers improve.

Kaizen is an opportunity for everyone to look at work in detail and to make sure we are focusing on the right priorities. Kaizen is a wonderful alignment tool between management's assumptions and attitudes, and the reality of work experienced by operators. Rather than waste time with politics and abstract ideas from managers, everyone can align themselves around the process of value creation at the Gemba. The purpose of Kaizen is not finding the million dollar idea. It's engaging every worker in what they do first, and then, understanding delivery problems in detail to make sure we’re all focusing our efforts on the right things. Just think of the numerous initiatives banks, airline companies, phone companies, supermarket chains launch to try to get you to purchase more from them yet which merely irritate you because they fill up your mailbox and still don’t solve your problem! Don’t kid yourself - we do the same at the office. Kaizen is what helps us figuring this out.

The most important core principle for managers to understand when they lead Kaizen is that their priority is not finding solutions per se - but generating an understanding of problems in such detail that the solution is obvious (zero investment). Getting a group to come up with the first solution that comes to mind is much easier than focusing a team on understanding the real problem. That’s the job. That said, we must always be mindful of results: (I personally use a board looking at safety, quality, inventory, productivity, environment, at four stages: before and after the event, then check one a few weeks later and then check two a couple of months later). And that's because obtaining performance improvement is the only sure sign that we have correctly understood the problem.

Kaizen starts to be fun if it's treated as a murder investigation. Imagine that there’s a serial killer event producing bad parts or pissing off customers and we want to nail him! In a murder investigation, framing the wrong culprit is a big no-no. Things only make sense when the real villain is caught. We’re heroes when we can prove we've got the real one (usually by reproducing the problem at will). With this perspective in mind, the ups and downs of the investigation are okay, as long as we’re learning more about the process. I remember figuring that out when working with a group on a stamping press, and from one day to the next, my feelings about Kaizen changed. First, you get a lot more patient, because you hardly expect to find the real culprit right away (the guys handling the process are not stupid - they'd fixed it by now), second, the endorphin buzz abut solving the problem shifts to every time we understand the problem better. Call me a geek, but it’s interesting.

So, how about a few specific coping strategies? Here are five tips you can try from the cognitive psychology library:

Tip #1: thank every participant for their contribution, even when it comes out angry or cynical. This is not about them, it's about you. Practicing the discipline of thanking people for bringing problems to light will both reinforce your commitment to truly understanding the problem and, you’ll see, expressing gratitude for their contribution to your job will make you feel happier about it. It's easier when it's a positive comment, but that's not the point. For this to work it has to be a practice.

Tip #2: be optimistic about Kaizen outcomes. Keep focused on the fact that every time one person is more engaged, and thinks deeper about their job, you're doing your lean coach job of "making people before making products". The name of the game is 100 x 1% not 1 x 100%. It’s a lot easier to be optimistic about the big ideas, the better mousetrap. But it's also unrealistic. We've all seen what the greatest ideas can turn into in practice. Because it doesn’t come naturally, the idea is to practice optimism in every small step. One step will lead to another, and the journey will lead everybody to a better place.

Tip #3: don’t bring Kaizen issues home. When we get deeply engaged in an issue, particularly if there's some element of conflict in it, our minds go into overdrive and our thinking narrows down to incidents, first as a mania, and then as a panic. If you've got to worry about something, it's whether you have correctly understood the technical problem, but try not to dwell on the people problems too much - they'll sort themselves out. People who get into lean tend to obsess about it (because there’s so much waste all around), which is not good. So, no lean at home, and it’s okay to have a messy desk and not 5S the garage. Lean is a method to solve problems at work. If there are some problems you want to solve at home, fine, do lean for real, but don't let your mind just buzz restlessly about it.

Tip #4: take care of the relationships. Every work situation has two components: the deal and the relationship - and they affect each other. We can get so focused on the deal that we forget about the relationship (and vice versa: that’s "nice lean"). We're seldom trained to grow relationships at work, but there are a few rules of thumb. The first one is to separate the people from the problem and to be tough on the problem, soft on the people. The second rule of thumb is that understanding does not mean agreement. How can we do that? Well, a good place to start is by listening to what people have to say (not when you conduct the group, but around it) and express understanding to as many things as you can. Personally, I try to come out with one thing I didn't know about the person from each interaction.

Tip #5: go to the Gemba and look some more. Let yourself get carried away by observing processes more, and more closely, and try to communicate this passion to your group. Yes we have some differences. Sure we disagree. Yep, we have some bad grievances against each other. But let's look at this thing together for a couple of hours and see if we see the same thing. Let's find out the manufacturer’s documentation that goes with this machine and see what it says. Even better if we can experiment together in testing ideas right away. Let yourself be carried by the flow of the experience of looking deeper into the problem.

Kaizen can be fun, but Kaizen will always be difficult (we're not designed to think deeply without getting seriously engaged first), so, it's our jobs as lean coaches to make Kaizen fun. Let's apply Kaizen to the way we do the job (do we have standards? Do we carry out PDCA). The surprising thing is that's how you find the fun in Kaizen.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Anonymous October 5, 2009

Completed a Kaizen event last week. I worked hard to celebrate the problems identified, and have the team identify the solutions. We found worn out tools, unnecessary tooling, lack of some tools, poor placement of physical resources and reach issues well outside the 'strike zone'. Solutions continue to be implemented, I will track our progress and keep the celebrations on track for each problem eliminated.
As the facilitator, I tracked the problems so as not to lose sight of them; always returning to the team for possible solutions.
Empowering the team to identify solutions greatly reduced the perception of me having to have all the answers; even if only in my mind!
Thanks for reminding me to use all the tools available-respect for people is a valuable resource. The proof will indeed be in the pudding when the team members take what they learned last week and apply it to next weeks opportunities.
Lucie November 17, 2009
We completed 2 kaizen events so far and are not discontented with the results. What I think is great in your column, is that not finding the solution is the priority, but people to think about their problems. When I look back to our kaizen events, I now can say this is one of our biggest 'results'. Thanks for this!
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