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How can I make sure my teams do kaizen the right way?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How can I make sure my teams do kaizen the right way?

Interesting question – let’s first apply lean thinking to ourselves. What success do we seek in any kaizen activity? Let’s go to the Gemba and look, say, at a coding team. What could be a successful kaizen activity? The last team I saw reported how they fixed a recurring bug by changing something in the way they used a standard code block – this sounds like a good kaizen topic. The deeper aim of kaizen is to enrich people’s understanding of their own jobs. This requires a “win” in two dimensions:

  1. The team has fixed a concrete problem in a way that stays fixed and understands exactly how they’ve fixed it
  2. They’re proud of what they’ve done and happy about how they went about it and want to share it with the world

In some lucky cases, the gain is clear and the team is proud. In opposite extreme cases, they’ve done kaizen as a rain dance because someone made them to: They don’t show much progress and think they’ve been wasting their time. These two cases are clear-cut and easy to spot.

But life at the frontline is never easy. Teams can be quite happy with what they’ve done not having solved the problem at all but, as happens often, having shifted the problem onto someone else, such as a contractor, so we know for sure the issue will come back and no one has learned anything. Contrarily, teams that have tackled real, difficult problems can be unhappy with their own work, both because the improvement work has created tensions within the team or with others in the organization.

Five Keys for Clear kaizen Thinking

Is there a way to support teams to do a better job? It’s not easy – but you can at least make sure team members are clear on their kaizen steps.

  1. Choosing the right topics: Is the sought-after gain clear? Why was this particular kaizen theme chosen? Is the reason clear to all?
  2. Analysis: Have they gathered facts? Have they used an analysis method, such as process steps or a Pareto chart? Have they succeeded in putting a cause-and-effect diagram together?
  3. Countermeasures: Are the concrete measures taken clear? Is this clear to all? Have the key steps been cleared by the right people?
  4. Results: Quantified results can be difficult to achieve, but is there something obviously useful for the company? Have they brought value closer to the customer?
  5. Standardization: Is there a clear attempt not to backslide? Do they understand where the main backsliding risks are and what should be done to avoid that?

You can’t help people think, but you can help them clarify their thinking by being more explicit on what they need to do to be more convincing. This will also help the team surface problems and disagreement earlier on, and provide opportunities to give them support where you can.

Typically, management lets teams get one with kaizen and then reviews the overall results when the team presents – we’ve all done it. Typically, presentations stall at the very first point when the reasons for selecting the kaizen effort are unclear. I have to plead guilty there. I’ve done it many, many times.

There is no such thing as support, only proof of supportIf we challenge the team at the end point, we’re treating the kaizen exercise as a batch of thinking, which can easily overload the team with what they will experience as criticism and leave them with the feeling they’ve worked very hard and management is never satisfied.

Another, more costly method timewise, is to have a chat with the teams as they progress through their kaizen efforts. The downside is that teams will likely feel that management is breathing down their necks and that they don’t have proper space to explore their issues autonomously.

I don’t know if there is a right balance. What I do know from painful experience is that middle-managers are rarely very good at evaluating the kaizen efforts of frontline teams. In fact, you’re asking the right question: how do I make sure my teams do kaizen the right way?

Support Is Nonexistent

As a manager the first reflex is, as I have done, to see yourself primarily as an evaluator. But is that really what teams expect of you? This begs the deeper question: what can you do, actively, as a manager, to make sure that teams are supported in their improvement efforts?

There is no such thing as support, only proof of support. The answer to this deeper question hinges on three things:

  1. Do the teams see you interested in their efforts?
  2. Do they see you take into account their findings?
  3. Do they see you help them with obstacles they don’t know how to deal with?

Firstly, how curious are you about what the team is trying to achieve. Do you get down and dirty and look at the technical issues they grapple with, or do you keep to being a manager and just look at the surface of the process? Being curious about the work is the clearest sign you can give to the team that you really care, and are not just asking them to do so because that’s “good practice.”

Secondly, they’ve got to see it matters. Ask yourself: when did I last change a procedure at my level to take into account the conclusions of a kaizen effort? This is critical. Teams will see immediately if their kaizen findings are being taken up to change departmental policies and make the company evolve as a whole. This will both make them proud and give them a sense of meaning in continuing to improve at process level. They’ll know their work matters and things can change. Only you can give them that.

Thirdly, your teams will hit roadblocks that they can’t solve on their own: some other senior guy says “don’t go there; " an authorization is needed to spend a little money; or they feel there is a sacred cow they can’t touch. They don’t need you to solve their problems for them. But they do need you to clear the way when they’re stuck.

As a manager, you’re not expected to understand every nuance that the work teams do at the frontline. kaizen initiatives are a great way to get educated. However, you’ve got to be willing to go beyond the surface to understand what the teams are really telling you. Since you shouldn’t compete with them on their own technical grounds (chances are you’ll look silly anyhow), you can, however, be better at reading their kaizen efforts:

  Beginner Advanced
Topic The team seems to know why they’ve chosen that theme. You can recognize whether they’re trying to maintain the status quo or really seek improvement. They’ve picked one indicator they want to move, have stated a time frame for their efforts, and are mindful of secondary impacts.
Analysis They have made an analysis that seems to hold together. They’ve cut the data in a way that makes a cause appear. They have elements of a causal reasoning, either through a validated fishbone or a Pareto analysis. They have tested their factors and have sought to check correlations between factors and their target indicator.
Countermeasures They are testing a concrete change with a clear before/after. The actions they propose are clearly linked to their analysis. They have a clear validation plan of the actions to make sure they get the go-ahead (and support) of key figures in the organization. They have scoped the timeframe of conducting these actions and expecting results.
Results They have done some checking. The indicator they check is actually the one they started with in selecting the theme. They can clearly show that results are better, they’ve systematically checked the impact on quality, on suppliers and other partners, and they’ve taken into account the cost of making the change.
Standardization They have some suggestions of what needs to be done not to backslide. They have changed their own internal procedures to accommodate the new way of working. They can point to remaining problems with their new method and are studying them. They are aware of potential fallout from the change they’ve conducted and are ready to respond if negative feedback arises. They also see the next goal appear beyond their immediate results.

And if you’re in charge at the departmental level and have several middle-managers reporting to you, the same question applies: how to ensure middle-managers actually support kaizen work. I can’t count the number of kaizen presentation where the CEO is rightly pissed off because he realized his middle-managers were no help at all – or worse, hindrances.

I honestly don’t know how to solve this problem other than talk to them again and again, but I’ve seen some good experiments with communities of practices: getting middle-managers to discuss among themselves their difficulties with supporting kaizen and sharing their good ideas.

On the whole, I don’t know how to get one team to do one kaizen right, any more than I know how to get one corn stem to grow right. What we can do, however, is take care of the field: create the conditions for all teams to do kaizen as best we know and see who succeeds and who doesn’t and what extra support we need to give.

3 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani December 10, 2018

It's not right to blame middle-managers. The problem is more complicated than you depict. Firstly, middle-managers are not set up to succeed by senior managers. Secondly, middle-managers are usually constrained by many things, such as: Lack of role models (i.e. bosses who do not practice Lean), poor Lean training, lack of rewards and recognition, senior managers perpetual chant of "failure is not an option," getting blamed for bad outcomes, being held accountable to non-Lean metrics, no-change in performance appraisal process or criteria, and so on. 

Ernest Miller December 14, 2018

I must say, my experience with middle managers mirrors what Michael describes above.  Bob, I think all the reasons you mention in your comment are contributors to why middle managers often are ineffective supporters or sometimes even destructive to kaizen efforts, but it doesn't change the reality.  Maybe CEO's or CXX executives should point the finger at themselves for not developing their middle managers, but it should not be overlooked that middle managers are often the greatest obstacles to lean implementation and effective Kaizen.

Sean Skinner December 17, 2018

We should be asking why the middle managers are not supporting-leading kaizen effectively. If senior leaders are not asking them to support-lead it with that system in mind (focus on process), they will not. The middle manager will try to get results anyway possible without a consistent method in mind.  

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