The Case for Kaizen Events

One thing that there’s no shortage of in life is criticism about things we don’t fully understand—or haven’t experienced success with. Another thing there’s no shortage of is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Broad generalizations—especially those that are patently untrue—serve no one.

Enter Kaizen Events—also known as Kaizen Blitzes, Kaizen Workshops, Rapid Improvement Events (RIEs), Rapid Process Improvement Workshops (RPIWs), and a host of company-branded terms. Some people equate “Workouts” (a term used for an improvement method popularized by General Electric) with Kaizen Events, though there are striking differences—at least in terms of how Mike Osterling and I define Kaizen Events in our book, The Kaizen Event Planner (And good news! TKEP has just been released in e-book form).

While the exact genesis of Kaizen Events is unclear, it appears to be tied to a convergence of interest from Danaher executives who were working with the consulting firm Shingijutsu in the late 1980’s and the Northeast Region of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME). According to Jon Brodeur’s introduction in AME’s The Kaizen Blitz:

“Our decision to structure the Kaizen Blitz as a three-day event came down to economics; three days was the right amount of time people could spend away from their companies and still get a good taste of the approach. Three days would not magically transform the organization, but a three-day blitz would give management and people at all levels a good idea of what could happen in a concentrated effort driven by human creativity.”

So here we are—20 or more years since Kaizen Events were born. We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. But I’m concerned with the degree to which Kaizen Events are derided by some of the leading voices in the Lean movement. One notable Lean thinker recently wrote: “Who has time for the hugely wasteful & mechanical five-day kaizen events?” Are you kidding me? Hugely wasteful? Mechanical? That’s not at all my perspective and extensive experience with the methodology. Perhaps we need to reboot our Kaizen Event engine and learn how to use them responsibly and effectively.

Here’s how:

1. View Kaizen Events as transformation “practice sessions.”

Kaizen Events offer an efficient and effective method for achieving more than improvement to specific processes. Sure, the methodology offers a powerful venue for solving problems quickly. However, the cognitive learning, skill development, and psychological and behavioral shifts that occur with well-executed Kaizen Events offer even deeper and longer-lasting benefits.

Organizational transformation is contingent on drawing clearer lines between leadership’s role in setting strategy and drawing on workforce experience and creativity to solve problems at a tactical level. Kaizen Events offer a powerful training ground for achieving this shift. Leaders get more skilled in determining what needs to happen; the people who do the work become authorized and progressively more skilled in determining how. This shift ultimately frees leaders’ time so they can focus on their primary role—vision and strategy—and produces high levels of engagement all the way to the frontlines.

Kaizen Events also offer an efficient and effective way to teach critical thinking and develop proper problem-solving skills to 6-10 people at once. Putting a problem through its plan-do-study-adjust paces (for a full description, see pp 120-132 in The Outstanding Organization), helps habituate proper problem solving across an organization. Encouraging a team to repeatedly kick the tires and ask “why?”, “why not?”, and “what if?” creates a way of thinking that has far-reaching benefits.

Kaizen Events also offer a powerful way to replace unhealthy organizational habits with healthy ones. Done well, Kaizen Events help organizations learn how to:

  • See work through the holistic lens that reflects reality. Organizations that are structured solely by function create an environment where no one person understands the way work truly flows and value is delivered to a customer. No one. Now that’s plain silliness and the subject for a different post. But even if an organization isn’t prepared to challenge its existing structure, Kaizen Events result in a team of 6-10 people who FINALLY understand how work flows (or, more commonly, doesn’t flow) across a large swath of the organization. As a team member on last week’s Kaizen Event admitted during a interim briefing to leaders (that included some of the most senior leaders in the organization): “I thought my portion of the process was perfect! (Laughter) And then I found out how much I contributed to the problem.” Kaizen Events build holistic thinking that results in greater collaboration, cooperation, and decision-making all of the time, not just in Kaizen Events. And it creates a pool of people who are far more knowledgeable about the business and what customers value, which is a boon for developing up-and-comers and building a customer-focused operation.
  • Build proper meeting management skills. Many organizations have highly dysfunctional meeting management practices. Properly planned and executed Kaizen Events build skills around establishing clear meeting objectives, involving the proper people (no more and no less), starting and ending on time, sticking to scope, etc. Another participant on last week’s Kaizen team said: “Wow. If only all of our meetings were conducted like this!”
  • Build strong collaborative problem-solving skills. By design, Kaizen Events move fast. Having only 3-5 days to solve long-standing problems requires that people learn how to ask the right questions, listen deeply, avoid side conversations, and avoid talking over each other. This last one is particularly important—many organizations have a habitual pattern of talking over each other and having multiple conversations going on at once. Like fish in water, most don’t even recognize that the problem exists. The “ground rules” in effectively facilitated Kaizen Events disallow this behavior, which team members quickly embrace and value. And I know I’ve truly succeeded as a facilitator if, by the end of the Event, team members begin asking the types of questions that only I asked on day one. When the facilitator can take a back seat to the improvement process, this is true success!

But notice that I referred to Kaizen Events as transformation “practice sessions.” I didn’t say that they were the way you play the game all of the time. At some point, rapid improvement by focused cross-functional teams needs to become the natural way an organization conducts its business and formal Kaizen Events need to be few and far in between.

2. Tie Kaizen Events to a larger strategy.

For all of the benefits listed in #1, who wouldn’t want to give Kaizen Events a try? Well, before you grab that hammer out and begin looking for nails, understand that Kaizen Events need to be tied to a larger strategy or they become reduced to “drive-by kaizen,” “Kamikaze Kaizen,” or, my favorite that I learned from a colleague many years ago, “Random Acts of Kaizen.”

Kaizen Events are first and foremost a method for executing. Proper Kaizen Events don’t result in a plan for making improvement. The improvement occurs right then and there. So you can technically use them any time you want to execute rapidly. But they should be linked to something larger that’s a top priority for the organization. For example, problem owners and problem teams using the A3 methodology for problem solving can turn to Kaizen Events as a means to rapidly design, test, and implement the countermeasures needed to solve a specific aspect of a problem. Organizations who are improving an entire value stream can use Kaizen Events to rapidly design, test, and implement the various countermeasures that are needed to achieve the future state value stream as a mapping team has designed. (But note that value stream mapping should PRECEDE Kaizen Events, not be part of them. See Value Stream Mapping for more details.) But, in all cases, Kaizen Events should be tied to something larger (Hoshin Plan, A3, Value Stream Map, etc.) to make the best use of these resource-intensive activities. Running Kaizen Events just because you want to or know how to simply doesn’t make good business sense.

3. Balance Kaizen Events with building daily kaizen chops.

I believe that most of the people who trash talk Kaizen Events do so because they see organizations who can’t seem to make improvement in any other way and haven’t made much, if any, progress in creating continuous improvement cultures.

If you view improvement in degrees, well-executed Kaizen Events are similar to double or triple hits in a baseball game. Large, well executed, multi-month projects are the organizational equivalent of home runs and grand slams: thrilling, but difficult to achieve. Consistent “single hits” that move runners from base to base are how games are won. Achieving consistent single hits is also what results in the “magic of Lean,” described by a long-standing client CEO:

“In my experience leading organizations through the Lean Journey, there’s a magic moment, a tipping point, where a critical mass of believers engage their hearts and souls into making their work simpler and easier. All of the workforce development, daily kaizen, Kaizen Events, and project teams finally kick into a natural unconscious behavior. The power of incremental improvements creates inertia that delivers profit to the bottom line. No one is really sure what exactly is driving the financial improvements. It’s not an event; it’s a change of culture, a new healthier, happier company. That’s what I call the Magic of Lean.”

As I mention in The Outstanding Organization (p. 172)you must include Kaizen Events in your portfolio of improvement methods. “Rapid improvement is energizing to workers and leadership teams alike, and provides an effective means to break organizational habits that slow execution.” Kaizen Events are a way to formally pass the baton from leaders to the front lines, and tie tactics to strategy. They’re an effective way to change behavior at all levels. Which gets us back to point #1 and the myriad of benefits Kaizen Events offer.

The bottom line? Don’t reject a concept just because it’s not executed properly much of the time. Nor because it’s used indiscriminately instead of purposefully. Instead, vow to help the organizations we touch learn how to harness the power that Kaizen Events offer and used them as a balanced approach to creating organizational transformation.

For assistance in using Kaizen Events as a balanced approach to transforming and achieving rapid results, please contact us to schedule a facilitated Event or facilitator development program. Or check out The Kaizen Event Planner in either paper or e-book form.

by Leanchatman reply

Thanks, I enjoyed the article. I also identify Kaizen Events as an output from VSM’s but also as a technique to establish ongoing CI after full blown lean reengineering projects. In my experience Kaizen Events if scoped effectively, with tight, specific objectives can be effective forums of execution. Sometimes standard work and performance measures are necessary prerequisites. If they don’t exist, the events themselves can also be used to help establish those principles. I just wish people would stop using the term to describe glorified meetings!


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