Sunday, February 28, 2016

How to Build a Culture of Kaizen from Scratch

It is extremely difficult to create a culture of kaizen. There are plenty of self proclaimed lean companies that can't do kaizen worth a lick. How many improvements were made in your company last week? What if I told you that one company, with 120 people, have done over 60 in a little under 2 months? 

It takes months, sometimes years to create a culture of kaizen. I'm not talking about periodic kaizen "events" led by the lean champion or the black belt. Those are merely top-down "feel good" events that last 3 days or so, result in something called a kaizen newspaper(inventory), and when the three days are up, well, everybody goes back to work. Phew, glad that's over. 

Instead, I'm talking about a culture where everyone makes process improvements part of their job every day. Slow, steady, small, relentless steps toward flow, that wonderful place where orders come in, and don't ever stop until they ship, and you get paid. The customer gets exactly what they want, in the exact amount the want, exactly when they want it. A true competitive advantage.

What usually "stops" the order (preventing flow) is what we call the 8 wastes: defects, overproduction (making more than we need right now), waiting (materials and people wait), nonessential processing, excessive transport, inventory, excess motion, or unused employee brainpower. All of these things cost time. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months.

Think of lean simply as time management. If a process takes an hour to do, figure out how to do it in 58 minutes by first recognizing, then eliminating one or more of the 8 wastes in that process. Then do it again. And again and again and again. Then do it in the other 5000 processes in your business.

Trouble is, there's only one you. We need to figure out how to inspire and teach every single person how to first see, then eliminate waste. Temporary, self directed work teams led by the experts (the people who actually DO the work) using A3 is a method more and more smart companies are using to eliminate thousands of hours of non value-added work. This translates to profit....because I can ship more with the same investment in time (dollars shipped divided by hours worked). 

A good way to start is with employee suggestions (frustration elimination). People will be more than happy to give suggestions as long as they know they aren't wasting their breath. These suggestions can be thought of as the waste people can easily see with the naked eye. The role of the lean champion and management is to help the person who made the suggestion pick the right 3-5 person team. If the suggestion is too big, help them turn it into smaller, more digestible bites. Help them get their team together. Help them with the form. Teach them 5 why. Help them present what they and their team did to others. Do not fix the problem for them. 

Using A3 to implement suggestions is so valuable because people are learning how to bust silos and practicing the DMAIC over and over again. The A3 form itself is laid out so the team starts with define, then measure, then analyze, then improve, then control. You are slowly and steadily building an entire population of better and better team players and better and better problem solvers. 

As time goes by, people will need less and less help, and what started as a world class suggestion system will turn into a company of extremely good problem solvers.

Start small. Go see if you can get 3 people to answer this question this week: "if you owned the company, what one change would you make in their own job right now?" Consider what they say an employee suggestion, and use A3 to help get it done.

Don't expect people to solve difficult problems until they can do little ones really well. The beautiful part is that once established as a culture, it won't stop.

That makes for a very difficult company to compete against!


  1. I like the article. I also found that you got a side benefit of career progression and reduced attrition for those involved.