Two common questions for people new to the Lean Six Sigma community are: “What is Kaizen?” and “Why would you run a Kaizen event as part of a Lean Six Sigma project?” This article describes what a Kaizen event is and addresses how to run successful Kaizen events.

In “A Plan for a Five-day Kaizen” the authors look at some common tools and techniques for planning a successful Kaizen event, and identifies some pitfalls to avoid.

Kaizen Basics

Kaizen is a Japanese term that translates to “change for the better” and is sometimes paraphrased as continuous improvement. As an event, a Kaizen represents a focused effort by a team to make quick but meaningful improvements to a defined area of a business process.

Kaizen is not designed exclusively for manufacturing processes but was first embraced on the shop floor. Kaizen can be used to impact one of three measures for a manufacturer – throughput (cycle time), inventory, and product or process cost. While non-manufacturing processes may look to other meaningful metrics to improve, any measurable process improvement should ultimately translate to one of these three primary areas of improvement.

The Relationship Between Kaizen and Lean Six Sigma

Kaizen events are generally distinguished from Lean Six Sigma projects by virtue of the shorter time to implement changes and the more focused application of resources (i.e., team members) to solve problems. The cognitive problem-solving approaches and the philosophies are the same, though some may differentiate the names of the problem solving phases in Kaizen events versus Six Sigma projects. Using the same philosophy in a shorter timeframe can mean that Kaizen events tend to favor trial-and-error tweaking of solutions in the absence of the thorough data analysis that characterizes Six Sigma projects. Solution-tweaking is a consequence that is often readily accepted in order to drive change quickly.

Because of the philosophical similarities between Kaizen and Six Sigma, Kaizen events often become an important component of Six Sigma projects in order to remove operational noise and to help illustrate the systemic issues to be solved in a Six Sigma project. It is also common that Six Sigma projects are a byproduct of efforts to characterize waste in a Kaizen event. In a mature continuous improvement culture, Kaizen and Six Sigma can have a powerful, symbiotic interaction. A planned schedule of future Kaizen events can also become part of a control plan to ensure that an operating system adopts a continuous improvement approach to ongoing management of the process.

Successful Kaizen Events

The best Kaizen events, typically defined by achieving a goal in less than two weeks, feature the following elements.

Process understanding, defined metrics and license to change are prerequisites of a Kaizen event.

The role of team leader is crucial to having a successful Kaizen event. An effective leader will harness the power of multiple voices to explore solutions, refine and correct those solutions as needed, get actions completed quickly, and take responsibility for the success or failure of the event. The team leader should be mostly neutral during the event, but should be ready to contribute when doing so may add value – team leadership is an art form in this sense. The leader is empowered by the site or line leadership to make changes while keeping a focus on what metrics are most important. Change for the sake of change without improving business metrics (and ultimately financial performance) is never the desired outcome.

The team leader must be familiar with the process regardless of whether they formally work in the process. If the selected team leader is unfamiliar with the process, then the team leader must formally observe the process performed prior to launching the team – without trying to improve the process during the observations. In a transactional process the team leader needs to watch several process transactions flow from start to finish before facilitating an event.

Also before launching the Kaizen event, line or site leadership must determine the metrics that will be used to evaluate the work of the team. For example, if a Kaizen is being used to help 5S (sort, straighten, shine, standardize, sustain) an area, an operator’s movements (distance traveled by steps or arms) could be a selected metric – ensuring that the 5S actions were appropriate. As previously stated, continuous improvement-related Kaizen events should primarily focus on three types of measures – throughput, cost and inventory; the event and the selected metrics should be directly linked to at least one of these three process characteristics.

This often requires considerable planning; leaders must be sure that change management approaches are properly considered in anticipation of the desired improvements. For example, if it is clear that standard work combinations need to be reorganized in order to match demand to new manning levels and line layouts, then the site leadership needs to be prepared for document change control and training of operators – as well as supervisors and support personnel. (Note: This assumes that the organization is at an adequate level of maturity to perform a Kaizen and embraces  the importance of a formalized change management process.) Further, having to wait for approvals should be minimized so any changes prioritized by the team can be implemented within 24 hours ideally.

Speed is critical to these events in order to establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship between process changes and process performance. Consequently, the actions of the team must stay focused on improving the metrics desired by the leadership, and not be distracted by political maneuvering to gain support for the changes.

Teams that consist primarily of people who participate in the process.

The team must include three to seven full-time team members who regularly participate in the process that is the focus of the Kaizen event. While it is important to build a cross-functional team, consider using some team members (such as a finance representative) on an ad hoc basis. Powerful Kaizen events have line leadership or supervisors as part of the team composition; teams whose membership derives exclusively from either leadership or operator ranks can suffer from a myopic view of the system and limited buy-in from the process stakeholders. The challenge for any Kaizen leader is to ensure that subordinates are empowered and able to offer ideas without being inhibited by participating line leaders. The input of these team members is critical – they will be actively assisting in executing process changes, they will have to live with the changes as part of their daily routine, and they will be helping their colleagues understand and embrace the process changes moving forward.

Often, work will need to be accomplished during the 12 to 16 hours the team is not on-site or otherwise unavailable, so the team leader should identify a prearranged point of contact who can coordinate necessary actions. Examples of off-hours work include rearranging furniture in an office, getting new IT connections to support a reconfiguration, getting new tools fabricated to accomplish a task, and acquiring a new piece of equipment that allows for easier operations.

Actions prompted by the team must align with the measures that the leadership wants a Kaizen event to affect. The team members must know that their time is dedicated to the Kaizen until the team disbands. Furthermore, site or line leadership must recognize that team members will not be available as resources to accomplish other tasks – like keeping the line running!

Using process participants as part of the team helps with the critical change management that is often neglected. If the improvements are understood by all the team members, then acceptance is easier to sell outside of the team. If line leadership can also be part of the team, then the team’s empowerment grows because tacit approval exists for the changes even before confirming with a change management program. The team leader should recognize that unanimous, unwavering endorsement of all changes is not critical; many changes can proceed with general agreement only and an understanding of potential risks. Kaizen leaders need to recognize that there is risk in every decision, but when discipline is applied in understanding the metrics, the people and the process the risks can be better understood. Understanding the risks of making a bad decision – not eliminating such decisions entirely – is the practical path to undertake. To presume that any risk will be completely eliminated undermines the credibility of the Kaizen leader and/or wastes time trying to achieve the impossible.

Kaizen scopes defined not just by the metrics, but also by the physical boundaries of work.

Do not attempt to solve world hunger. No matter how tempting it might be to improve a high-level metric of an operation, the Kaizen leader needs to keep the focus sharp and directly tied to the team’s domain of control. This is especially important if the leader lacks experience running these intense, focused events. The focus should be on reducing a defect or error in one portion of the process, removing a specific element of waste or improving a subprocess of one production/processing area – not on reengineering a complex system. Planning multiple Kaizen events in sequence, each with a narrow focus, is preferable to a single, broadly scoped event on a complex operation. Elimination of one bottleneck will often reveal other bottlenecks that previously had been obscured.

Depending on the scope of the Kaizen, the availability of the line (process) must be coordinated and aligned with the business needs. If significant physical changes are required (or expected) for the process as a result of the Kaizen, then time must be allotted each day to allow these changes to occur. The team leader must remember to use the change management process to ensure changes are aligned with the business needs.

Successful Kaizens can be scheduled for as short as one day or as long as five days. Short Kaizen events need to be narrowly focused with a small physical area to be impacted. While a Kaizen event should target two weeks or less to attain its goals, there are often cases where more difficult physical changes cannot be fully accommodated in that timeframe, so a project plan with milestones and responsible individuals will need to be established and managed.

There is no absolute rule that prescribes how long a Kaizen should keep the team members fully engaged, but it is rare to go beyond a week on a single purpose. Kaizen events are both physically and emotionally intense so more than one week can become difficult to endure. Often, team members will need to address action items outside of the formally convened team for at least one week following the original event. If the team feels the physical or transactional boundary must change during the event, the team leader must immediately coordinate with site or line leadership to formalize the scope change.

Preparing for Success

As with most endeavors, adequate preparation paves the way for success. The guidelines provided here  prepare a company for how to arrange and scope a Kaizen event. Besides solving a focused issue within a process, Kaizen events can be effective in any phase of a Six Sigma project as a means to scope an opportunity, understand waste or quickly identify solutions. Whether used on its own or within a Lean Six Sigma project, a Kaizen event has the potential to bring about lasting, impactful change.

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