Back To The Future

Here is an article I wrote ten years ago, recently resurrected from the lost letter file.  I can’t remember why I wrote it or for whom. Originally entitled, “What is Kaizen?” the article still resonates with me as I hope it will with you.


What is Kaizen?

Over the years my study of TPS has been guided by book learning, tacit learning and more good luck than bad.   One stroke of good luck occurred in February 1987 when I picked up a copy of Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success by Masaaki Imai.  At that time, most literature about TPS was focusing on its technical aspects so this book, which focused on harnessing ideas and creativity, was different.   Also around that time, early TPS efforts at my company were foundering.  We had “lowered the water level of inventory to expose the rocks” and to our dismay were discovering more rocks than we’d bargained for.  We needed more problem solvers and Mr. Imai’s book quickly became a blueprint for individual and small group improvements that bailed us out of troubled waters.  It was truly good luck that led me to Imai’s definition of kaizen which I’ll paraphrase as “many small improvements that come from the common sense and experience of the people who do the work.”

Thus, many small improvements chipped away at and eventually dislodged the rocks that threatened to sink our TPS efforts.   As a manager, my tacit learning from this experience was that shop floor employees were brilliant and creative – some more than others, but all of them smart, proud of their work and extremely willing to be problem-solvers.  Of course there are a lot of books that tell managers that, but that’s academic.  To really understand it we have to practice it!  While Mr. Imai explicitly described the nature of kaizen with many tangible examples, he was quick to point out that understanding kaizen requires practice:  learning by doing.  Toyota refers to this as “tacit learning” as opposed to academic or book learning.  Anyone who has learned to ride a bike can understand what tacit learning is.  It’s visceral and emotional as well as intellectual.  It’s not academic.  And I had a serious need for more problem-solvers. So there’s another stroke of luck:  Our self-inflicted crisis (hitting the rocks) created a need – and opportunity — to take a chance.   While I like to think myself egalitarian, if there had not been a crisis, the opportunity to expand the problem-solving role beyond a few support personnel and supervisors might not have occurred.

Never-ending improvement – that’s kaizen. This is what I learned by “riding the bike.”  But the common translation of “continuous improvement” doesn’t do it justice because it doesn’t connote the changes that also occur within the persons who have created the improvement. The act of being creative to solve a problem or make an improvement has not only educated us but also inspired us to go further. Now tacit learning kicks in again: Concerns by supervision that work will not get done are replaced by more time to do work. Unfounded fears that “employees will mess up” give way to positive anticipation.   More ideas from more employees offered more freely and more frequently generates an organizational confidence to do more than what was previously thought possible. Every day is a day for more improvement.  My tacit learning?  That kaizen is for “Everybody, Everyday” (GBMP’s slogan.)  The momentum and pace of improvement is governed by the breadth and depth of learning and participation of every single person in the organization.  True, there are some employees with more ideas than others, but the act of each and every employee offering his or her creativity changes the organization.

All of this learning proceeded from a definition of kaizen offered by Masaaki Imai.  Unfortunately not everyone subscribes to his definition.  The notion of “small changes” it seems was a turn-off to managers looking for faster progress, managers who subscribed to the “big brain” theory:  breakthrough and innovation emanating from the creativity of just a few smart people.  The idea that many small ideas from the shop floor were going to make any difference at all was (and still is) summarily dismissed.  This is indeed unfortunate because even though its success has been documented countless times over the last three decades, only tacit learning can teach managers the real power of kaizen.

To parody an old proverb:

“You can lead the manager to the shop floor,” as they say, “but you can’t make him see.”

And sometimes you can’t even lead him to the shop floor!  The word “small” is really a misnomer, perhaps a bad translation from Japanese, because while the cost of the small changes may be small, the effect may be huge!  I have witnessed many small changes that were worth ten dollars and many that were worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.  As one former skeptic reported to me recently, “I can only assume that the dramatic improvements in quality are attributable to the small changes we made, and these summed up to a gain I would not have imagined.”   Tacit learning.  Another manager in the same conversation stated “We’ve made more significant headway in the last six weeks than in the previous six years!  Tacit learning for her:  “Many small changes for the better” add up to improvement much faster than we think.

Still many managers remain immune to this evidence.  The big brain theorists have morphed kaizen into events.  Not something done by “Everybody, Everyday”, but some thing done apart from the work, largely organized and directed by people other than those who do the work.  I first witnessed this practice in 1989 as a visitor in another New England manufacturer at a week long “kaizen event” billed as “5 days and one night”.  I was invited as a participant even though I did not work at the company and knew nothing about its factory. Coming from a situation where improvements were mostly grassroots generated and implemented, I found the whole situation stunning.   Employees from the work center where I was participating were tangentially involved at best.  Most stood sullenly on the sidelines.  One employee confided to me that they would change everything back after we left.  He referred to the process as the BOHICA method, an acronym that I will not expand (but you can guess.)  In this situation employees had become objects rather agents of change, a situation all too comfortable for many managers.  For these employees “kaizen” meant “messes created by managers that produced fabricated gains.”   Implicit in their understanding of kaizen was that management had no regard for employee initiative or creativity, that all of the ideas were coming from the big brains.

Subsequent to that experience I’ve heard the term kaizen used as a euphemism for job cutting and outsourcing, and as a task force method to “get workers to work harder.”  Several years ago I had to even sign a contract before I started to work with a company stating that I would never use the word kaizen in the presence of employees, lest they become enraged; so distasteful was their previous experience.  Less damaging, but still confusing, is a growing tendency to break kaizen into “minor” and major”, a token gesture most often to allow a certain number of non-mandated improvements and differentiate them from the “real” events.  Others shoehorn every capital investment into the kaizen court.  Some might be kaizen, some innovation; but even a warehouse expansion has qualified with one company as a “major kaizen.”  (I thought that was waste of storage.)   Companies who can afford it are establishing mezzanine departments to foster kaizen, but too often only those in the new department are focused on improvement.  Management and supervision distance themselves, and the whole process becomes an extracurricular activity.   In these environments no real change is occurring to the organization.  It’s status quo, business as usual.

A respected friend in the TPS business remarked to me recently that maybe the term “kaizen” is itself becoming a point of confusion, that maybe it has been carved up too many times and now, like “continuous improvement”, is devoid of meaning or emotive power; this, the word that Mr. Imai explained thirty years ago is the “Key to Japan’s Competitive Success.”  Sadly, my friend may be right; maybe we need a new name.  We’re good at renaming Toyota words after all.  If such a move could enlighten us and direct our thinking to Mr. Imai’s definition, I’d support it.  But for me, it’s still, and will always be, kaizen:  many small (but organization transforming) improvements that come from the common sense and experience of the people who do the work.  “Everybody, Everyday”.


Thanks to all of my readers for subscribing, reading and occasionally commenting on my blog. The very best wishes to you all for 2017.

O. L. D.

10 thoughts on “Back To The Future

  1. Jim Benning

    I have been a subscriber for a couple years and this, to me, was your best article to date.

    At our facilities it hard to pull people out for a 3-5 day Kaizen as we don’t seem to have excess human resources. And yes, with successful Kaizens you will free people up who can do more Kaizens…but business is dynamic and this doesn’t seem to happen. Anyway, we have found that 2-hour VSM’s produce tons of small ideas that really add up and the participants love it. The ideas are then transferred to an ITC and we are off! Very exciting.

    Our biggest challenge is sharing all the “wins” with the rest of the company, which would go a long way to move the culture forward. I’d like to hear some ideas on that.

    1. toastguy

      Thanks for reading Jim. One idea regarding greater visibility for participation — Create a crib sheet for your management team: What was improved or what problem was solved? Where? Who was involved? Then prep your top managers to visit the improvements with a knowldegeable “thank you.” Be sure to coach the visitors to thank the persons who have made the improvement and ALSO thank the team leads and supervisiors that have “created a favorable environment for employees to make improvements.” If you can engineer a few of these visits, it will help to engage management and supervision as well as front line. Don’t overdo it – just a visit or two to start. Don’t want to overburden the managers 🙂

      1. kevin kobett

        I think it would be a good idea to give this crib sheet to everyone working for you. This defines expectations and lets everyone build on past successes.

    2. kevin kobett

      “Mr. Imai explicitly described the nature of kaizen with many tangible examples”

      IMO, the best way to continuously improve the culture is thru stories. Two types of stories, kaizen examples like Mr. Imai and stories that highlight bad behaviors that derail kaizen. These latter stories tell employees, “We know what bad behaviors look like and this is how we counter those costly behaviors. It’s as easy as asking successful innovators, “Who was helpful?” It would be wise to be helpful; good things will happen.”

  2. kevin kobett

    Nice article. I think it is important to start with kaizen. When someone makes an improvement, ask “Who was helpful?” This will identify the company’s natural lean leaders.

  3. Jeff Geisler

    Thank you for publishing this article again. I’m not entirely sure what I was doing 10 years ago but I missed it!

    The pushing aside, the marginalization, the separation from the center of control of the folks doing the work that you outline in your experience is now pretty much societal wide. Brexit and the Trump election (and no, I’m not making a qualitative comment about either) reflect this deepening divide.

    I’m not sure what the solution is but “outsourcing” is not it, and I consider the establishment of “Big Brain” teams in a company or country as falling within my working definition of “outsourcing”.

    Given the hours most folks spend on the job, maybe finding a way to give them voice while they earn a living would go a long way to finding a way to bring them back into the cultural fold.

  4. Gary Peterson

    This is spot-on, Bruce, and as usual, very well expressed. I like everything you said, and am going to offer it up for our people to read. Thanks for always providing such thoughtful writings!

  5. brherb

    Great insight unfortunately all too accurate too often .
    I have been through the process of “event based” Kaizen and always found it strange and disconnected from daily work. Can now say with pride that it can be done right and does work when the ficus – as you said – becomes small local individual changes.


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