Home > Gemba Coach> After improving processes with help from a consultant, how do I sustain kaizen in my department? My teams are hard to motivate.

After improving processes with help from a consultant, how do I sustain kaizen in my department? My teams are hard to motivate.

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How do I sustain kaizen in my department? We’ve had a consultant help us with workshops, and we did improve our processes, but I struggle with moving to continuous improvement, as my teams are hard to motivate on this.

It is difficult. Shifting from process improvement, which means the step change from one process to a new, improved, version of the process is something we’re all familiar with. Shifting to continuous improvement where every month brings a new change point is something different altogether. In the former case, we teach people to deal with reorganization and in the latter we teach them to deal with dynamic change – not the same things at all.

There are several managerial practices to learn in order to create the conditions for continuous improvement on the job and within the day-to-day work.

First, challenges. As a department head, are you clear on the long-term improvement topics that won’t change from one day to the next, one month to the next, or for that matter,  one year to the next. In your case, are you clear on what improving safety, improving quality, improving delivery, improving variety with flexibility, improving productivity, improving engagement and involvement actually mean – have you formulated your long-term improvement issues in a way that makes practical sense for all your team?

To take a Toyota example, 11 generations of the Corolla over 40 years of production have always followed the same long-term challenge: an affordable family car with some luxury features. Every four or five years, at product renewal time, the chief engineer reinterprets what this strategy means according to customers’ current lifestyle and expresses it into specific features to be kaizened, but the improvement strategy remains the same.

For instance, in a lean construction company, the CEO has expressed his improvement strategy in the following five points:

  1. Safer work
  2. Right first time (understand what the customer wants and do it right away, no “finishing” after the job is done)
  3. Done and gone (the task is completely finished and the area cleared for the next contractor to be able to work in good conditions – huge challenge in construction)
  4. Better hand-offs (more fluid hand-overs relays from one trade to the next)
  5. Better energy performance (being smarter with building design to create  lower consumption needs for the finished building)

This strategy works both at the company level by contributing to better satisfy customers and reduce construction lead-times significantly, but it is also used to have daily discussions with the project management teams on site – any task being done right now can be discussed in the light of these five elements, and both new problems and new ideas will emerge.

Without Visuals …

The second aspect of creating the conditions of continuous improvement is visual control. Each team has to learn to visualize its processes so that:

  • The daily, hourly plan is clear (production analysis board)
  • The sequence of jobs to do is clear (Kanban)
  • work is clear (Standards)
  • Working conditions are clear (5S)
  • Calling out when there is a problem is clear (Andon)

Visual control is about distinguishing at one glance normal from abnormal so that people working day after day keep a sense of what is a good job for the customer versus what is not, and what is a good way to work versus what is not. Any work has some routine elements to it and it’s easy to let some things slip. Mission creep is unavoidable, unless management steps in to show problems and remind people of the meaning of work, the value it has for customers and how to distinguish good work from bad work.

A full-fledged pull system is of course the best way to visualize the workplace, but not always easy to get started without sensei help. Be it as may, visual control can always be improved and the first task of the department head is to make sure the visual system (the sum of the visual control points) is in place and improving regularly. People are asked to jot obstacles and caused of non-production not because we expect them to solve them all, but because we maintain a culture of “problems first” where mulling over our problems without guilt or blame and looking for immediate countermeasures are the foundations of the intent to improve.

When you get fed up of the creaky door or the leaky faucet, sooner or later, you fix it. Without visual control and without management presence in the Gemba to jump in and show problems, the motivation to improve disappears in the daily fog or war and friction of normal work.

kaizen Is a Skill

Thirdly, teaching kaizen skills. Giving people improvement objectives without teaching them a method to do so is simply cruel. Although we keep saying kaizen this, kaizen that, I increasingly come across managers who talk about kaizen in a vague, general, philosophical way, rather than with a clear notion of “Plan-Do-Check-Act.” kaizen is a skill, and like any skill, it needs to be learned through practice. The reference book to learn kaizen is Isao Kato and Art Smalley’s Toyota kaizen Methods workbook. There are several approaches to kaizen within Toyota, but here Kato and Smalley present one of the dominant ones, codified by Isao Kato himself over decades at Toyota. Their basic six steps are:

  1. Discover improvement potential
  2. Analyze the current methods
  3. Generate original ideas
  4. Develop an implementation plan
  5. Implement the plan
  6. Evaluate the new method

As a manager, the important thing to realize with this six-step method is that it aims to develop kaizen skills – it’s not something you give to people on a slide and tell them “go forth and kaizen.” Each step is there to teach an aspect of kaizen to frontline teams:

kaizen method step

Teaching topic to develop kaizen skills

1. Discover improvement potential

Develop the kaizen spirit by helping people see the improvement potential in any normal work environment: no process is ever perfect so it can always be improved in terms of either more value for customers or less muri, mura, muda in the work.

2. Analyze current method

Break down the current method in clear steps to look at existing standards, write them down if they’re not there, and ask questions about the deeper logic of work, which is also a great starting point for generating improvement ideas.

3. Generate original ideas

An essential use of kaizen is to create space for people to think and to get in touch with their creativity (as opposed to traditional methods that insist on apply, apply, apply). Divergent thinking is the key to creativity and here we want to look at the existing process in many different ways, with different metaphors (How would nature do it? Can we just eliminate stuff? Or combine and simplify?).

4. Develop an implementation plan

An implementation plan is not just about the action plan to get the new idea in place, but about understanding the organization and knowing who to talk to and who to enroll to successfully implement. The point of the plan is teaching teams to gain leadership and better work with their neighboring silos.

5. Implement the plan

Teaching teams a bias for action often involves giving them permission to go ahead and try things AND measure the impact of what they do as they do. This usually means teaching teams to create the conditions of an experiment (defined perimeter, measuring method) rather than wholesale change and a prayer.

6. Evaluate new method

Few things ever work or not work – most new ideas work in certain conditions and less so in others. Evaluating a new method is essentially about developing discernment – the ability to judge in which condition what works best, and, ultimately the source of all quality work. For the manager the evaluation of new methods is also a key moment to see beyond local improvement what deeper insights can be garnered in the way the business is set up at a higher level.

Brutal Fact

In fact, you’ll discover that the key to sustaining kaizen in the long run is in your own attitude to learning. If you see every kaizen initiative as the opportunity to learn deeper about you business by sampling detailed activities through team kaizen efforts, kaizen will naturally continue simply because you will keep on asking your teams to solve problems or come up with better ways of doing thing.

To answer your question brutally, as a department head, if you struggle with sustaining kaizen is that you haven’t found yet your own interest in kaizen efforts. They learn, you learn. Continuous improvement of products for customers, work processes with people and partnership with suppliers is a strategy in and by itself.

Challenging and teaching teams to respond to challenges by developing their kaizen skills is the engine that powers the whole lean effort. This can be learned everywhere, all the time, as long as one see outcomes as the result of job skills + kaizen skills. The manager’s first job is therefore to train teams daily to improve their job skills and improve their kaizen skills. As a manager, where did your time go yesterday? What do you plan on doing today?

7 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban February 18, 2015

When I hear the person with the question say "my teams are hard to motivate on this," my first thought is to say "stop blaming your team!"

Leaders need to learn how to tap into people's intrinsic motivation instead of trying to "motivate them" or force participation. You lay out some great questions here, Michael. Who is NOT motivated to improve the safety of their work? Quality is also something, along with making the work easier, that most people want to contribute to.

Stop blaming your employees and get out of their way... let them bring ideas forward, let them participate. Be a leader -- ask them for their ideas and collaborate with them to get things implemented. That leads to a sustainable Kaizen culture.

prabhat vats February 19, 2015

Dear Sir,

I am working in a company where Lean is a completely new thing.I started with training & Kaizen culture but the real problem is we make changes but it comes back to its original process in sometime.The Lean is monitored by CEO of company but not supported by HOD's.

Can you help me,how to build a Lean culture in my organization.

Thanks in advance.


Prabhat Vats

Chad Clark February 20, 2015

Ensuring that your team understands the "compelling why" for the improvement you're working on has a tremendous impact on their engagement and the sustainability of any gains achieved.  There are many levels of "compelling why" - corporate, division, department, team, or individual.  As a general rule, the closer you can bring the "compelling why" to the individuals that your working with, the more "compelling" it becomes.  Think about the old acronym WIIFM.  (What's In It For Me)

Best Regards,

Chad Clark

Dan Markovitz February 20, 2015


Your comment reminds me of the nurse manager you wrote about who said, "when you explained that kaizen was about saving time, making our work easier, and improving patient care, I realized I had a lot of ideas after all!"

Michael Balle February 21, 2015

Dear Prabhat Vats


I'll try to answer your lean culture question more fully in a column - interesting and difficult question!

James Remsen February 25, 2015

Perhaps it's not the "motivation" to do something, but rather the human tendency(by many) to resist the dynamic change. The team needs some type of proof that the changes are a benefit, and won't harm them. Do you offer any incentives for employees based on improvements?

abhishek mohan March 4, 2015

lean is a philosophy, human nature get addict  with the culture, difficult to change the habits of the people, there working style for the change.

leans seems to be a revolution to challenge the human being for the better development.



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