Kaizen events are deceptively simple. The tools used are often considered to be less rigorous than the more analytical tools that are the hallmark of Six Sigma. But in practice, Kaizen events can be challenging to facilitate effectively because participants are pulled from their regular roles, requiring the events to be short and focused, and facilitators to be efficient in their selection and execution of problem solving tools.

Facilitators trained in the Six Sigma methodology may be tempted to use more rigorous analytical tools. A non-statistical tool, the value stream map, is the focus during Kaizens, however, and when selecting other tools to accompany the map, Belts must be mindful not to introduce anything overly complicated.

Focus on the Value Stream Map

Standard tools and approaches in Kaizen can vary, but the backbone of most Kaizen events is the value stream map. Beyond that, the specific tools applied in any given event will depend on a variety of factors. Selecting the right tools for a given situation is challenging and using the tools effectively can be even harder. Furthermore, the tools that are most useful for complementing the value stream map in Kaizen events are other non-statistical tools, such as selection matrices, fishbone diagrams and brainstorming.

Recently I observed a Kaizen team immediately jump into a failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) following the creation of a well-documented current state value stream map. Any positive momentum that had accumulated during the value stream work was immediately squelched as the team slogged through an excessively detailed and painful FMEA. While the FMEA can be an effective tool for documentation or detailed process analysis, forcing a team to meticulously examine how they do work, it can also be mercilessly laborious, and in the context of a Kaizen event it must be applied selectively. In this case, the team attempted to document a detailed FMEA for the entire value stream and to make matters worse, the FMEA was improperly facilitated, yielding misleading risk priority number (RPN) scores.

The Role of the Facilitator

Examples such as the use of the FMEA are common in Kaizen events because facilitators often fail to prudently select the best tools and techniques for their situation. The irony is that the tools are simple to understand; the way they are manipulated and applied requires a special skill in the context of Kaizen. The good news is that while there is some mystery in the successful application of Kaizen tools, there are several ways to improve the chances of success.

The first step is to plan and prepare for the event, taking into consideration the participants and desired outcome for the effort. While not every Kaizen event will require takt time analysis and redefinition of standard work combinations, every event should produce a list of immediate and future improvement actions with dates and responsibilities assigned. In the course of planning, ensure that the proper scope and objectives are consistent with the complexity of the process being studied and the time allotted for the event. Traditional Kaizen events, which aim for inventory, waste and cycle time reductions in five days or less, are best applied to operational processes where no more than three different functions play important roles in the value stream.

As in any project management endeavor, the advice of the day for Kaizen event planning is “don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Events that focus on larger, multi-disciplinary or cross-functional organizations should be limited in their objectives to thorough value stream documentation, management system implementation and waste elimination at a high level. One major outcome of such events – in addition to fundamental improvements – is often a detailed plan for more focused Kaizen events in the future. This is consistent with the philosophy that processes should be “Kaizened” periodically, not addressed once and then ignored.

Establishing Basic Disciplines

In addition to scope, complexity and time allowed, Kaizen event objectives should also take into account the maturity of the organization or process to be improved. Navigating the path to Lean requires basic disciplines to be established in the following order:

  1. Workplace organization (5S)
  2. Visual workplace (signals to work and visible performance data)
  3. Standardized work (process control)

Establishing these fundamentals can require considerable time, but they are important contributors to the efficacy and the permanence of continuous improvement efforts like Kaizen. In many cases it is appropriate for a single five-day Kaizen event to focus purely on establishing 5S standards and methods.

Ensuring Useful Results

For certain team-based tools, Black Belts and Green Belts should not let their facilitation be encumbered by the exact approach that they learned in their DMAIC coursework. For any Kaizen event it is important that the right tools be applied in creative ways to ensure that the team’s time is used most effectively and that the tools produce useful results. This is the part that can make Kaizen event facilitation particularly challenging, but the challenges can be transformed into opportunities with a little preparation and practice.

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