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We get good results with kaizen, but why don't they stick?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Our teams have good results with kaizen, but nothing seems to stick for long – any advice?

Backsliding – yes, a common problem. Not to say a structural problem. Think about 5S. 5S is not so hard to start but incredibly hard to maintain. In fact, Toyota has only 4S:

  1. Sort and eliminate: get rid of anything that isn’t immediately useful
  2. Straighten: find a logical place for each thing
  3. Sweep: clean the place and maintain tools
  4. Standardize: create routines to maintain the 3 previous “S” in the course of work.

The fifth S, sustain, or self-discipline was invented for suppliers who couldn’t standardize. In other words, they backslid.

To standardize means to define the result you want to make repeatable in terms of what should be there/what shouldn’t be, where everything should be kept, and in what state. Then to solve the daily problems to keep it that way. Backsliding occurs because although it’s easy to push for a “clean your desk” operation, maintaining it clear every day requires changing the way you work. This is another story altogether.

As with 5S, most TPS techniques are about the next step. TPS really asks questions to lead you to try something new:

  • What are you going to change to better satisfy customers?
  • What are you going to change to reduce lead-time?
  • What are you going to change to spot defects closer to where they’re created?
  • What are you going to change to make standard cycles more repeatable?
  • And so on.

In general, teams think rather quickly about one thing they can try to progress. Today, I was on the Gemba in a project-based company, and in order to reduce lead-time, they thought about choosing contractors earlier and spending more time in explaining the purpose of the work and the procedures of the company. No doubt the test on one pilot project will be successful.

5S Fatigue

But as you look into it, you find that a common reason for choosing contractors late is that when the price doesn’t fit the budget, designation needs to be approved by the corporate office, which slows the process down considerably as corporate reacts at corporate speed. Although one project will do what it can to choose suppliers early in the process in order to reduce lead-time, this improvement is unlikely to stick because there will always be situations where corporate insists on having the sign-off. The improvement will backslide.

Researchers looking into improvement projects at a bank found that in over 204 lean projects, conducted over 4 years,  across 14 countries, initial improvements in efficiency averaged 10%, 20% after a year, and 31% after 2 years. But beyond the aggregate gains, the researchers discovered that 21% of the projects yielded no improvements, and among 79% of those that showed initial gains, only 73% were still producing above average results after a year, down to 44% after two years.

If you don’t change the underlying policies that drive behavior, no matter how smart and motivated people are, they will backslide. Worse, as we can see with 5S, they will catch initiative fatigue as they are asked to try to do this again, and again.

This is a problem Toyota faced in the early days of the TPS. Senior executives realized that shop floor progress needed to be complemented with back-office improvement, which led to developing a Total Quality Control program, later expanded into Total Quality Management. Back office managers were asked to develop progress A3 plans and A3 problem solving in order to standardize progress: what else needs to be changed for initial results to stick.

Department by department you can track:

  • What is the key metric we need to secure or improve?
  • What is the current context?
  • What are the previous changes in policy or procedure we’ve made in the preceding years?
  • What current change are we working on?
  • What remaining issues remain from previous changes?
  • Which next change are we considering

Back Office Exercise

In the contractor case, a previous countermeasure had been to set up a database with a supplier evaluation system to help project managers choose more reliable suppliers. Corporate would wave its sign-off with “partner” suppliers. However, Gemba evidence was that project managers tended to pick contractors outside the preferred list.

This change came about from a systematic review of the company’s supplier handing system and challenging it to improve – a back office program.Closer examination showed that the system was biased against frequently used contractors. Project managers only filled in the evaluation forms when they were upset about an incident and complained about a supplier. They didn’t bother with the paperwork when things had gone well. As a result, partner suppliers had more black marks against their names than new, unknown contractors. Rather than encourage project managers to work with the better known, more reliable contractors, the system did just the opposite.

The next change was for the owners of the supplier database to take responsibility for rankings and chase up project managers for their evaluations rather than let them do it all themselves online. This change came about from a systematic review of the company’s supplier handing system and challenging it to improve – a back office program.

Gemba improvements won’t ever stick if the policy that explained the previous situation isn’t changed as well. This means that self-study type exercises have to be conducted in the back-office department as well as on the shop floor. Without asking yourself systematically “what internal policy must I change for the value-level improvement to stick?” your kaizen steps will always backslide. Which brings us to the fundamental question: What will you change to avoid backsliding?

2 Comments | Post a Comment
dan markovitz December 17, 2018

The black marks on the partner suppliers reminds me of the famous story about how Abraham Wald's study for armor on WWII bombers avoided survivorship bias. The database owners should have studied that example more!

Kim Green-Goldsborough December 27, 2018

I agree wholeheartedly.  We're also garnering the power of visual managment to focus and sustain performance improvement.

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