In a previous article, “Kaizen – ADHD Therapy Using Continuous Improvement: Tools to Keep Employees Continuously Occupied,” we discussed what a Kaizen event is, focusing on how to organize and scope the event. This article looks at some common tools and techniques for planning a successful Kaizen event, and identifies some pitfalls to avoid.

Data, Data, Data

The intent of any Kaizen is improvement, specifically process improvement, and more specifically in some combination of three primary metrics: throughput, inventory and product/process cost. The metrics are established to provide a guidepost for progress toward a goal – a gauge of success (or failure). Use of metrics is non-negotiable. This means that collecting data on the metrics does not start during the Kaizen event; there must be a history of the relevant metrics to 1) justify that the Kaizen effort is even worth the time and 2) establish a baseline against which a goal can be defined and progress evaluated. Start to research and collect historical data relative to the metrics of the planned Kaizen event at least one month before the scheduled event. How much historical data is needed depends on the frequency of measurable events and variation. Some metrics, such as space needed to produce a product or distance walked by operators, do not require much effort to gather.

Too often, organizations employ Kaizen as a team-based brainstorming effort without the support of data. This is a mistake. Although Kaizen events are designed to be fast and intense, data analysis is still important to the process. In fact, the understanding and appropriate use of data are often the foundation of a successful Kaizen event.

Poorly executed Kaizen events can often be tied to poor (or absent) data analysis starting with insufficient understanding of KPI (key performance indicator) history. The problem gets worse when – because the team lacks time to gather the right data, they do not know what data to get or they do not know how to study the data even if they have it – root causes are identified and characterized by means of team voting or tribal knowledge. Solutions often fail because the team’s filtering of anecdotal information, which was assumed to be correct, failed to adequately select or describe the important sources of waste at a controllable level. Finally, data to track performance metrics after changes are implemented is commonly neglected, often because the team’s attention has turned to another fire. This failure will manifest itself in a lack of follow-up on open issues and a lack of understanding of the business impact resulting from the effort. Ultimately, these issues undermine the credibility of a Kaizen program.

Before the Kaizen

Kaizen events were never meant to be brainstorming events with solutions unsupported by data analysis. Unfortunately, many organizations choose this route because they have the misguided belief that data analysis is costly and contrary to the Kaizen speed culture. This approach becomes a rationalization for laziness since more time will ultimately be spent justifying or correcting solutions where appropriate data does not exist. Simply stated, without data, there is no opportunity for the team to discover anything new (i.e., innovate) as their brainstorming sessions will simply confirm what they think they already know. Do not neglect the value of the data; plan early (at least two weeks before the event) to get the necessary data, especially voice of the customer (VOC) data, and be prepared to quickly get more detailed data as questions arise during the event. As the data is gathered, it should be validated to ensure veracity.

In addition to a plan for the collection and validation of data, the Kaizen team leader will need to establish a charter with scope and objectives for the event at least two weeks prior to the event (note, this is in addition to the KPI information that should be gathered at least one month prior to the event). Tasks to be accomplished include identifying team members, notifying relevant departments about potential changes and estimating financial benefits.

The charter provides the framework necessary to create a daily agenda for deliverables in the Kaizen event. The charter and agenda should be developed in concert with (or at least approved by) the local management team, as it will dictate the planned resource requirements by day and the nature of the interruptions to the process so downtime can be sufficiently anticipated without impacting the customer. At the end of each day, it is best to meet with the Kaizen event’s champion or sponsor to review activities and conclusions, as well as barriers and resource needs for the next day. A brief description of each day in a typical five-day Kaizen event follows.

Day 1 – Current State Documentation

On Day 1, the charter should be communicated, participants should be trained and the process should be physically viewed. In addition, this is the time to create a first draft of the detailed value stream map (VSM). Through communication of the charter and a brief overview of the process, team members will be instructed on the objectives for the Kaizen event and their individual responsibilities in the Kaizen process. Site leadership should participate in the kickoff session to emphasize the importance of the event and grant authority to the team to make required changes. Training on the Kaizen approach and philosophy should be limited to one hour or less; the tools are intuitive by design and most of the learning experience will occur through live practice.

The bulk of Day 1 should be dedicated to observing the process, VOC synthesis, creating a VSM (or reviewing a recently-created VSM) and identifying the elements of waste. These efforts should be conducted with the knowledge of historical process performance as indicated by the data and any expected future conditions that will create additional challenges. Process performance should be illustrated with time series charts, histograms and pareto charts as necessary; finance personnel must participate in these efforts to provide perspective on the business impact of the historical performance relative to the objectives. The understanding gained on Day 1 will help to set priorities for the activities of the second day. End the day by starting a “newspaper” with photos of the process before any change. This newspaper summarizes all the completed actions and findings in a format that is easy to assemble and access.

Day 2 – Current State Evaluation

On Day 2, it is time to quantify the impact of the waste in terms of process metrics, take time studies, identify and prioritize bottlenecks, update the VSM, and begin root cause analysis on waste. For example, in a manufacturing process, elements of the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) metric should be decomposed to understand the losses in line capacity and identify important losses to be eliminated or reduced.

Data should be utilized as much as possible in the root cause characterization to support graphical analysis through pareto charts, histograms, multi-vari charts, box plots, scatter plots and control charts, to name a few. Graphical observations and conclusions should be verified statistically. Other team-based tools may include: brainstorming, affinity diagrams, fishbone diagrams, critical-to-quality trees, cause-and-effect matrices, process maps (the VSM works well for this), spaghetti charts and failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA).*  The time studies should be used to create a takt time analysis, the identification and quantification of value-add versus non-value-add work, and the understanding of current standard work combinations.

* The FMEA is a powerful but potentially time-consuming tool; it should be used sparingly to understand the root causes of the most important forms of waste.

The work conducted on this day is a critical input for the work of the third day:  identifying solutions and prioritizing opportunities for improvement. At this point the team should identify additional resources necessary to complete the task list, report to management any potential roadblocks or barriers, and begin the process of transferring knowledge to support culture change and reasons to embrace the new ways.

Day 3 – Characterize Future State; Plan Implementation

The focus of Day 3 is to develop and prioritize solutions to eliminate critical waste, develop new flow scenarios with new standard work combinations, prioritize changes, plan the implementation, create contingency plans, and begin solution implementation. The rigor applied in Day 2 dictates how well the team’s time is utilized on this day.

A project plan will help define resources and timing of both immediate changes and longer term changes. A future state VSM or process map should be created to illustrate the impact of the changes visually. Improvements should always be biased toward low-tech, simple and self-manageable solutions. (Complicated or expensive solutions must be reviewed with management and finance to quantify the expected benefits.) Proposed changes should also be reviewed with departments such as health and safety, and unions so time is not later wasted with approvals and enrollment. If team membership has been selected correctly, union concerns should be minimized since members will have been involved in the process. The team should begin implementing changes on this day in order to alleviate some of the burden for the fourth day. Newspaper updates should be prepared again.

Day 4 – Implement Future State

This is a long “all hands on deck” day with intense focus on implementing the changes with minimal impact on the operation. 5S techniques (sort, straighten, shine, standardize, sustain) may be applied as equipment is rearranged, cleaned and repaired; visual aids are installed; tools/jigs are organized, refurbished and enhanced; air/power supply access points and lights are moved; standard work documentation is revised; operators are trained; and the new process is piloted. It is critical that data is collected (including time studies) during the pilot in order to understand the impact of the process changes and provide feedback for multiple iterations of minor changes to optimize the process. Results are tallied and quantified with financial impact calculated.

This can be an exhausting day; resources and equipment must be coordinated to ensure smooth execution of the changes and the pilot. Be prepared to sequence implementation of some changes over time with a project plan that tracks dates and accountabilities. All meetings on this day should take place on the production floor or process area. It is important that management is present at the end of Day 4 to show support for new processes and discuss ways to sustain the changes.

Day 5 – Operationalize Future State and Debrief

Launch the new process for regular processing of demand and prepare a report based on the results achieved on Day 5. Prepare final documentation and approvals (legal, customer, safety, etc.) as necessary. A final, formal report of the event should not be required if the management team has been engaged during the rest of the Kaizen event. At this point, there should be no need to justify changes to management as issues should have surfaced as they were identified during the event. Any final report should be a simple summary of the information already compiled in the Kaizen newspaper.

Conduct a post-mortem with the Kaizen team, capturing best practices and learnings to be applied to future Kaizen events. Data collection plans and response plans should be in place to monitor performance and systematically respond to problems over the next several weeks; these monitoring and response plans should be institutionalized as part of the management system with ownership assigned and performance management plans updated. Review the task list and Kaizen metrics for completion every week for four weeks – or until all items are completed. The task list should assign responsibility to specific employees and list deliverable dates for each task.

People, Processes and Tools

No two Kaizen events will be the same and the real skill in conducting these events is deciding which tools to use, how rigorously to apply them, which individuals to involve in their administration and what the desired outcomes are. The tools of Kaizen are simple; their application requires diligent planning and considerable creativity on the part of the team leader. Team leaders need to remain aware of the risks created by the short timeframe and physical demands of the events: hasty decisions based on groupthink are a threat to the effectiveness of the Kaizen method. The agendas described above represent a sample of tools that should be considered at a minimum. Indeed, the schedule described is intended to be a guide; the realities of an individual operation inevitably dictate a slightly different schedule. Many times work will have to be performed late at night or during off shifts, so Kaizen leaders should plan to provide basic sustenance (food and appropriate beverages) during the event; 16-hour days are not uncommon. Typically, the team should expect to complete about 80 percent of the task list during the event with the remaining tasks to be completed within four weeks.

Optimizing Kaizen Events

Conscientious examination of best practices and lessons learned will naturally produce opportunities to standardize and improve future Kaizen events. Automatically assuming that a solution or a best practice from another process will produce identical results can be a risk. These implementations need to be tested as rigorously as any other solution. Operations with a mature Kaizen culture will design facilities to support the frequent process changes necessary to maintain optimal performance in a changing economic environment. For example, equipment designed for mobility (casters where possible), power and air drops designed for quick reconfiguration, moveable lighting on tracks, strategically placed (or minimized) vertical structural supports, elimination of walls, and floors and pathways that are easy to clean and re-mark are all examples of structural design components that can enable more efficient Kaizen execution.

Even with such facility design features, properly run Kaizen events are still intense and team members should be fully aware and prepared for the expectations of this difficult assignment. This means all participants should keep safety foremost in their minds as they will be working under stress, often in environments that are not completely familiar to them and they should be recognized for their heroic efforts and commitment. The intensity of successful Kaizen events also suggests that they should be judiciously applied and participants should not be required for events on multiple consecutive weeks.

Keep the Change

Kaizen is a powerful tool for positive change. With proper planning, appropriate use of data and effective tool application, these events deliver significant results to process improvement and financial impact to businesses. Additionally, Kaizen is an effective tool for helping people learn about their own processes (what works, what does not work and what is possible) and for empowering them to effect change. These outcomes cannot be quantified financially, but they are an important foundation for a continuous improvement culture and a committed workforce that accepts responsibility for the performance of their processes. The priceless outcomes of Kaizen may well be more valuable to your organization than the directly quantifiable process improvements.

About the Author