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Can you Kaizen Blitz your way to a Continuous Improvement culture?

Can you blitz yourself into a new culture?

This post will draw a distinction between what we would consider two different camps in the Lean transformation world. We typically don’t get any arguments when we discuss the virtues of having a true Kaizen culture. We would roughly describe this culture as team members working their way through obstacles that are preventing them from hitting their next target condition, supported along the way by knowledgeable coaches that are focused on developing the team members every bit as much as they are focused on helping the teams get over those same obstacles. This type of learner-coach relationship would exist at all levels of the organization enabling the growth of a culture of excellence, learning, and people development.

This sounds great but what we find usually has little or nothing to do with what I just described in the above paragraph. When we begin coaching a company, our typical finding is that they have kicked off a Lean transformation effort, allocated resources to the initiative in the form of people, computers, space, and a budget, and are then turned loose on the organization to ‘get lean’ or ‘do lean’ or some other form of this type of guidance minus any form of coaching.  So what is a team in this situation to do? Blitz.

When I talk about a Kaizen Blitz, I am describing the situation where the core Lean team will identify an area where they will focus their efforts. The team will recruit key players within the area and begin the planning phase. This usually has the team gathering reams of data, if available, and doing some sort of analysis on the line. Once the preparation is complete, the team will spend an intensive 3 to 5 days in the area making all sorts of radical changes to the process, whether it be a shop floor process or an administrative process. The changes to the process typically vary from radical to minor. We might find that entire processes get re-designed and re-launched during the week, leading to a challenging start up week after the Kaizen Blitz concludes. The teams will implement every Lean tool that they can during the week. They might spend time making cardboard mock ups and painting and taping the area to reflect the new layouts. By the time this Blitz is over, the area is usually radically different than it was at the beginning of the week. In some cases new jobs have been created, and typically elements of work content have been shifted around the area. The team will spend the last half day prepping for their report out to higher management where they will highlight the work the team has done. There will be worksheets, drawings, layouts, calculations, and all sorts of working drafts hanging around the area showing the hard work the team has done. Usually the management team will be impressed at the effort and how different the area looks and ask the team what’s next. The team will talk about the Kaizen Newspaper items that will need follow up and then take the obligatory team photo. Given the success of this event, the management team will then use the familiar metric ‘Kaizen Blitzes per Quarter’ to both challenge and grade the team’s performance. The team will then keep its focus on performing high-value Kaizen Blitzes to meet their target, usually having some kind of matrix or ROI formula to guide their efforts.

So, is this the way to develop a Continuous Improvement culture? We would argue that, while it’s better than doing nothing, this approach will only superficially and temporarily benefit the company at best. We would also argue that there is a better way that is both sustainable and will grow within your company beyond just a skilled team of deployment experts.

The approach or method we’re talking about involves a few key ingredients that we find missing in most Kaizen Blitz cultures. The first thing missing, usually, is a sense of direction or challenge for the team. What is it that guides their efforts? Are they focusing their efforts on the needs of the business or are they using a ‘best guess’ method? Another key question that the Kaizen Blitz teams usually can’t answer is ‘what problem are you trying to solve here?’ Or, to phrase it more appropriately, what target condition(s) are you trying to achieve? Typically we find that teams are just ‘jumping’, if you will, as far as they can from a current baseline. They can’t answer the question of ‘did you achieve what you set out to achieve?’ Another critical aspect we find missing is the coach. While this might sound a little self-serving, we would point out that the highest performing people and teams in any endeavor have the support and guidance of a coach. A coach’s role is not to tell you what to do, but rather to see what you’re doing and give you feedback on your performance that you’re incapable of seeing yourself. When it comes to Continuous Improvement, the coach’s role is to ensure that the learner(s) are striving toward target conditions using a solid scientific, methodological approach. Typically this is the familiar Plan Do Check Act cycle. Without these three, in our opinion, critical aspects of an improvement process, teams will struggle to make real gains and have those gains sustained for even the shortest period of time.

Our answer, then, to the question to this post is no. A company cannot Kaizen Blitz their way to a Continuous Improvement culture. To truly undertake a sustainable transformation, we argue that you need to have a solid process, PDCA, supported by the leadership team acting as coaches and providing both the higher level challenge as well as helping teams achieve the target conditions along the way to meeting the challenges. Absent this, you’ve got a lot of waste elimination activity going on with no measurable improvements to the business.

Which path are you on?