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Why does kaizen feel like chaos?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Why does kaizen always feel so destabilizing?

Because it is. That, actually, is the point of kaizen. Let’s take a step back and look at what made the success of Western industry for the past two or three centuries – and how this is waning – to understand how deep the problem is. Our organizations are built on three components:

  1. Bureaucracy: a hierarchy of roles, rules that are the same for everyone (and so is equal treatment), control through proper documentation (think audits and inspections and grades) and impersonal ownership of the means of production. The whole point, originally, was to protect civil servants from the whims of aristocrats, and bureaucracy has allowed organizations to grow to world-spanning networks, with an obsession with power concentration and structure.
  2. Optimization: because bureaucracy works but, by nature, it becomes inefficient as it grows (too many layers, too many cross-connections, too much paperwork with decisions that can only be taken at the top), process optimization is always a concern, and achieved in two ways: greater task specialization (which always works but adds yet more layers of supervising bureaucracy) and “one best way” process improvement supervised by experts (themselves becoming a bureaucratic function).
  3. Automation: one of the great benefits of both factors is that it highlights specific activities ripe for automation which makes capital concentration wins, and so good for #1 and optimization wins and so good for #2. It also drives technology, which is mostly good for everybody.

Breaking Bureaucracy

The point here is that first, we don’t really know anything else, and second we’ve been very successful with this for a couple of centuries, so the conditioning to look for bureaucratic (in the rational, noble sense of the word) is always there, and no one is ever surprised when the resulting process is riddled with red tape (which people on the ground always expected). The other aspect we all know is that every new attempt at “reform” will lead towards the creation of one more layer of bureaucracy – sometimes apropos, sometimes plain silly.

Change, in a bureaucracy can only come in two forms: (1) change of roles and hierarchies through reorganization (all the way down to the responsibility for means of production) or (2) change of the rules that apply to all equally. Since change comes from the top and affects all in some form or shape, change management is a central bureaucratic issue – and a boon for consultants (the most bureaucratic, specialized, change resistant external department of all).

Kaizen breaks every possible bureaucratic principle.

Kaizen starts from team ownership of their own work methods at the gemba (yes, the kaizen interpretation of work standards, not bureaucratic procedures). For instance, a team will notice that, in the way the cell was built, reading the instruction for the product can’t be done from where the operator makes the assembly. It’s a small thing, so the team will figure out how to change this to make work easier, safer, and avoid quality problems. Look at the rules this small kaizen breaks:

  1. The team works on changes without following a direct instruction from their hierarchy.
  2. The team makes a change that other teams won’t do (worse, other teams are making other changes) so now the procedure is not applied equally everywhere.
  3. The team feels ownership of means of production.
  4. The team will change the perfect design of the expert, and probably ignore “best practice” recommendations.
  5. Team members will think for themselves.

“If every team did that!” – yes: chaos. Which is what we see in the best lean plants. No two teams, even building the same products at different locations, work exactly the same way. Equipment and systems are modified constantly. This adds to the bureaucratic nightmare of controlling and documenting, but, hey, who cares: it delivers performance and involvement, and delivers massive dividends in quality spirit.

But bureaucrats hate it.

Lean at the Local Level

So the Western dream of lean is kaizen-less lean. Let’s focus on hoshin kanri (delivering instructions through the hierarchical line), Let’s obsess on standard work (as in localized work procedures). Let’s have a “kaizen” office to run kaizen workshops  and implement lean “best practices” (Taylorist optimization). Let’s interpret lean according to our bureaucratic conditioning to avoid the chaos of kaizen.

Interestingly, Eastern sites don’t share the same obsessions. They are not bureaucracy free, far from it, but they have a different take on it. They tend to obsess with:

  1. Sharing high-level (sometimes very high-level) directives
  2. Tolerating a great deal of local chaos which they see as necessary to get things done.
  3. Personal relationships (as opposed to role-to-role impersonal relationships) are still seen as essential.

Within this, kaizen makes a lot more sense since it actually brings some method to the normal chaos of doing things. Hoshin kanri also makes more sense because it’s all about how to interpret locally the high-level directive. Try to think your way through Akio Toyoda’s directive of “seek to earn the customer’s smile.” What does it mean for you, locally? What do you need to kaizen to get closer to what this directive means to you? How do we all discuss this?

The practical self-study exercise that comes out of this discussion is teaching oneself to always err on the side of kaizen. This is interesting because it reveals the depth of our bureaucratic/Taylorist conditioning – myself included. We always look for people-free solutions that should apply equally to everyone by change of process/organization/structure. Kaizen feels wrong because it brings a (very small) measure of destabilizing, chaotic change. The brilliancy of it is that, as a small step, we can adapt the organization progressively to accept it. Hence, one hundred 1% improvements rather than one 1% reform.

Not convinced? Just read all blogs, papers, etc. with “lean” in the subtitle with a red pen in the left hand and a green pen in the right hand. Red pen is for “more bureaucracy,” green pen is for “smart kaizen” and see where you get to.

Kaizen is supposed to be destabilizing, in small ways. One quality circle per team on-going through the business does feel like chaos, but, to be honest, at executive levels it’s kind of fun. We should not underestimate how much strain and stress this creates for middle management, and the need to train them to change their own procedures to support the discoveries from frontline kaizen efforts. Kaizen is the deep, fundamental energy that fuels competitive advantage in an age where bureaucracies have gone wild, overwhelming, and delivering less and less returns to society. Kaizen is the way to keep the advantage of large, connected organizations without the obsession to turn every person into a working-bee robot.

Stop breathing, stop living. Stop kaizen, start dying.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Bart June 30, 2016

Good stuff.  I find that the need for kaizen is also critical at the personal level.  If I stop improving myself, I begin to become bureaucratic (heavy, less creative, less compassionate) - and then -- less productive.  Want to have a good day?  Team up with someone and improve something.

Andrew Garton July 10, 2016

Michael, I agree that making changes does feel like planning for chaos. At the process level sometimes changes cause problems. And some times those problems provide the insight to resolve a problem from a new perspective.

The challenge for a company with a large bureaucracy that has kaizen teams and other continuous improvement activities is to identify the new ideas and find the way to horizontally deploy those ideas elsewhere in the organisation whether that is locally or internationally.

In large organisations there are going to be some people that are going to ask "Where else can this idea be applied?"  because they see the potential of an idea and think outside of the box and there are others that will not even ask themselves the question. 

So Kaizen and Hoshin Kanri need to sit together in the toolbox of lean.

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