Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Lean Insights: How do we keep kaizen going?

March 29, 2011
By Dr. Timothy

Twenty-five years after the release of Masaaki Imai’s classic book Kaizen, many organizations have continued to pursue Lean/kaizen. Unfortunately, many more have dropped their efforts.

Bob Emiliani’s latest book, Real Lean (vol. 6), contains a great interview with former Wiremold CEO Art Byrne, who has more than 30 years of experience leading Lean very successfully. Byrne says that Lean is 95 percent done wrong. Only five to seven percent of manufacturers have been doing Lean correctly and sustainably.

Most organizations find that Lean/kaizen drops off fairly quickly after only a few years of initial successes. I often point out that it takes at least two years to really build a Lean culture. Past that point, people tend to forget their successes and revert back to their short-term thinking.

There are ways to prevent the loss of Lean/kaizen momentum:
• Ask customers to help. Most customers with a supplier development program will be delighted to offer their help. Those without their own Lean or kaizen capability may actually engage you to help them, creating new supply chain collaboration opportunities. At the very least, clearly grasping customer expectations can help reset your own targets and give you new focus for kaizen.
• Set audacious targets. Think bigger than you normally would. Toyota routinely sets targets that require “cost reduction by half” and other ridiculous things. This helps blow away the more mundane excuses rooted in today’s realities, which over time we come to believe are firm and unchanging (i.e. the best we can do). Once the platform has been set on fire, a healthy sense of urgency has been instilled and people are serious about climbing the newly visible peak. Allow people to take it a few small, steady steps at a time.
• Assign people dedicated to leading the climb. There may or may not already be people dedicated to Lean, kaizen, six sigma or continuous improvement in an organization that has made progress in kaizen. Having a dedicated person or team to examine why kaizen seems to be stuck, benchmark what others are doing to keep it going, and to build momentum around getting the ball rolling again, is a good idea. Make sure these people have genuine enthusiasm and knowledge of how to do kaizen.
• Visualize your progress. This requires using metrics. Let people know how they are getting on towards the goal. I was on the winning end of a discussion recently to persuade the owner of a successful Lean company to post improvement metrics on the shop floor for all to see. This would not have been appropriate a year or two ago, nor would these metrics have been appreciated and understood. However, after years of progress with kaizen, I believe this is exactly what this company needed at this time to keep the focus on their particular themes for kaizen. Done over a period of years, the visualization of kaizen activities also serves as an early warning sign that the energy is waning, or that we are becoming complacent with our progress.
• Ask people for their ideas. Any company advanced with kaizen will say they already do this, but when quizzed on the gemba, only the best can actually answer “today” when asked, “When is the last time you asked another team member for their kaizen idea?” It is the most obvious, most direct and quickest way to keep kaizen going.
• Involve everyone. Just as there is always more room for improvement in quality, safety and service, there is always someone who has yet to be fully engaged in improvement. Examples may include the janitors, security guards, the landscaping crew or the seasonal workers. It is these people who often see things others miss, have time to think of fresh ideas and also require that we go back to basics when teaching how to do kaizen.
• Blaze your own trail. The martial arts process of shu-ha-ri or “hold-break-leave” applies here. First, we hold or stay true to the kaizen form taught to us by our sensei. Once we have mastered these, we can break away from these routines, making changes to better suit the unique person or organization we are. Then we distance ourselves – move apart from the sensei’s way to create our own way or style. In terms of kaizen, this means that there comes a time for following the standard approach, a time for mastering and adapting it, and a time for refining our own way of doing kaizen.


The ultimate test of whether one can keep kaizen going is to become the sensei and continue teaching others.

Dr. Timothy Hill is an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist and Certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt with global expertise in Human Resources/Human Capital. He can be reached at

From the bookshelf

Kato & Smalley. (2011). Toyota Kaizen Methods: Six Steps For Improvement. Productivity Press.

I love reading about Toyota. Kato and Smalley both worked at Toyota for a number of years, and have put their considerable talents together to give us a practical look at kaizen. More than just a weeklong kaizen blitz, a company’s success is dependent on total employee involvement in daily kaizen. The western-style five-day kaizen events were in reality quite rare during the development of Toyota’s production system, and are virtually nonexistent today inside of Toyota. This is a practical book that:
• traces the origins of kaizen since the start of Toyota Motor Corp.;
• articulates the basic six-step kaizen improvement skills pattern taught inside;
• helps practitioners of kaizen improve their own skill level and confidence by simplifying concepts and removing any mystery in the process; and
• provides homework assignments and a wealth of forms for analysing work processes.

This workbook focuses on the actual training course concepts and methods used by Toyota to develop employee skill level, a core element of Toyota’s success. If you take the time to study the concepts detailed here, you will be reviewing the same methods and techniques that were harnessed by generations of Toyota supervisors, managers and engineers.

These techniques are not the secret ingredient of Lean manufacturing; however, mastery of these timeless techniques will improve your ability to conduct improvement in almost any setting and generate improvement results for your organization.

I recommend this book for anyone who is starting on their Lean journey.

Question from the floor

QUESTION: I’ve heard about “Lean and Green.” How does that work? And how can I bring “Lean and Green” into my plant when I haven’t a Lean initiative?

ANSWER: The phrase Lean and Green refers to the savings possible when you apply Lean principles across the entire enterprise. Continuous improvement doesn’t only apply to the plant floor; it applies to the office as well as other areas. The Toyota plant in Cambridge, Ont., recycles enough to say that they have a zero percent return to landfill. Lean has been used to reduce and eliminate the amount of waste, cardboard and even the cutlery used in the employee cafeteria.

Lean is about eliminating the waste in any given process. We think of Lean as applying to the factory floor, but it goes anywhere. Give your people the challenge of reducing waste in non-traditional areas. This is particularly important when you’re just starting your Lean journey or if you have any resistance to changing the workplace. Let your people experience Lean success in those non-traditional areas. This will make it more likely that they will see opportunities in more traditional areas.

Measure what you’re managing and display those metrics for all to see. Even the CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) people will see progress from Lean initiatives. Remember that you’ve got three groups of people in your organization. The first is made up of people who will be on board with whatever new initiatives you’re bringing in. The second group of people will be from the “Show Me” state, and will only be convinced with data. The CAVE people form the last group and will only be convinced that Lean works with lots of data. Play to your strengths and deal with the first group. Then use the metrics to convince the second and third groups. Don’t try to convince everyone at once. – Dr. Timothy Hill

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