Tag Archives: continuous improvement

Tools or Culture?

With our annual Northeast LEAN Conference just a few days away, I want to relate a personal story about the theme of this year’s conference,

The Integration of Tools & Culture:

The first two books I ever read about Lean were Zero Inventories by Robert Hall and Japanese Manufacturing Techniques by Richard Schonberger.  In 1985, these definitive academic works were among just a few sources of information about what was then referred to as Just-In-Time, or JIT for short.   As I was just starting to manage a factory at that time with inventory turns of less than one (really), these JIT “how to” books seemed like the solution to my problems.    I owe Hall and Schonberger a debt of gratitude for their early reports about technical aspects of Toyota’s incredible improvement system.  But, for me, the single most important shred of information from these academic texts was a footnote in Hall’s book that referred to a then unknown industrialist by the name of Shigeo Shingo.  Hall cited Shingo’s book, A Study of the Toyota Production System: From an Industrial Engineering Viewpoint.  This book presented the technical aspects of Lean in a context of revolutionary concepts and principles.  The original 1982 version was a crude translation from the Japanese, but reading it created a sense of excitement about a wholly new way of thinking about work.   To be sure, Shingo’s explanation of tools echoed reports from Hall and Schonberger, but as one of the key inventors of TPS, Shingo shared a deep understanding that was grounded in unique personal experience and wisdom of a creator.  While he is most often remembered for introducing technical concepts like quick changeover and mistake-proofing, Shingo’s greatest contribution to my learning was in providing an integrated image of TPS, a system that was both technical and social science – tools and culture.  One could not exist without the other.  Beyond that, he conveyed his personal struggles to overcome what he referred as “conceptual blind spots” of his clients, Toyota among them.  He gave us the Law as well as the Gospel:  Lean is an immense opportunity but equally a daunting challenge to rise above status quo thinking.  “Keep an open mind,” he reminded us.  According to Mr. Shingo, management’s #1 job was “volition,” i.e., a passionate commitment to creating an environment that favored improvement. These were lessons that supported my organization and me as we learned new tools and unlearned old concepts at the same time.

Today I’m often asked, “What do we work on first, tools or culture?”   I answer, in context of the Toyota Production System, neither has substance without the other.  They are two sides of the same coin. We need to learn them together.   Our 2017 Northeast Lean Conference is dedicated to reinforcing that message.   Lean tools are essential as means for improvement; Lean culture is essential to enable us to see beyond the status quo. If you haven’t already registered, here’s a link with more information:


Hope we see you next week in Worcester, MA for a couple of energizing, informing and inspiring days.


Lean Society

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

This quote from George Orwell’s political allegory, Animal Farm, occurred to me recently as I listened to a design engineer explain to me how he was taught in college that engineers have a special responsibility to help their less able co-workers.  Not intending to single out engineers or generalize from one data point, this example demonstrates what I observe to be a longstanding preoccupation with degrees, certificates, and belts.  We may refer to employees on the front line as “value-adding”, but too often it’s the ones with letters after their names that we actually value.

In 1957, Peter Drucker dubbed the latter group knowledge workers, “high-level employees who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal education,” thereby inadvertently differentiating the thinkers from the do-ers, the high level from the low level, the brain trust from the variable expense.

My personal experience with this distinction developed over a period of years as I changed jobs, first from marketing to IT and then to production.  In the eyes of my fellow managers, I morphed in the process from an imaginative idea person into a brainy techno-geek and finally to a slow-witted grunt.  The adjectives are important because they connote associated stereotypes.  I joke that I started near the top and then worked my way down, IQ dropping along the way.  Paradoxically, my knowledge of value and waste increased each time I got further from that theoretical and analytical knowledge and closer to the floor.   John Shook noted at the 2016 Northeast LEAN Conference, the persons who do the work are the real knowledge workers, as they are the ones with a first-hand understanding of the work.   (Incidentally, our 2017 Northeast Lean Conference is on the horizon. Check out the agenda.)

Whether in a factory or an office or an operating room, the knowledge is contained in the work.  In that sense, all work should be knowledge work if we are thinking about it and trying to improve it.   Steve Spear refers to Lean transformation as “theory proven by practice.”  Both are essential and should be inextricably linked.   Our Lean transformation should have room for both the theorists and the practitioners.   Unfortunately, when it comes to transformation, some employees are “more equal than others.”   We favor the theorists and mostly ignore the practitioners.  Perhaps our love affair with a college education and degrees and certificates and belts has baked in a two-class society where only a select few employees are heard and seen; the rest fall into that eighth waste category of “lost human creativity.”  I’ve assembled a short list of nouns and adjectives commonly used to describe these classes. Can you think of others?  Please share.


P.S. GBMP is a licensed affiliate of The Shingo Institute and we are teaching their 5 courses on 17 occasions over the next few months (with new dates and locations being added all the time). I am a certified instructor along with other GBMPers Dan Fleming, Pat Wardwell, Mike Orzen & Larry Anderson. We hope to see you at a workshop soon. Here’s the schedule; visit www.gbmp.org and click on Events to learn more. The Shingo Institute courses are a great way to learn how to embed Shingo Model principles into your Lean program and create a road map to sustainable Enterprise Excellence. Read what past attendees have said about the workshops and GBMP’s instructors.

The Final Frontier

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first US astronaut to journey to the “final frontier.”  Atop a Mercury rocket, Shepard launched into a fifteen-minute suborbital journey reaching an altitude of about one hundred miles before returning to earth.  His space capsule, Freedom 7, was a wonder of science weighing a little more than one ton and loaded to the max with avionics and life support apparatus. Yet, this pioneering venture into endless space would also afford almost no space for the passenger.  According to launch engineer, Guenter Wendt, “astronauts entered their capsules with a shoehorn and departed with a can opener.”   I remember watching footage of Shephard squeezing into his capsule.  The memory still creates pangs of claustrophobia.

Ironically, space constraints faced by NASA fueled a revolution in miniaturization evident in almost every innovation of modern society – from laptops to cell phones to transportation to medical devices to all things Internet.  The need to pack more utility into a small package has changed everything.  Or almost everything.  Here are some recent exceptions:

“We’re adding a new wing to manufacturing,” a colleague related to me recently, “we’re running out of space.”   As I glanced around a shop floor crowded more with material than machines, I asked, “What are you going to put in the new space?”  “We’re just going to spread out,” he said.  “This is a good time to build before interest rates start to climb.”

Another manufacturer advised recently that he was building a Lean warehouse.  “What’s that?” I asked.   “We’re relocating all of our raw material to a location that’s closer to the main highway,” he said. “We need to add several machines, so were Lean-ing out the space.”    “Aren’t you just adding more space and moving inventory farther from your floor?”  I asked.  His response: “Warehouse space is cheap.”

A major hospital requested Lean assistance to re-design its perinatal services in order to accommodate more patients.  After reviewing the current operation, I recommended that existing space could be repurposed to handle the projected growth. “No,” they said, “We’re cramped. We need more space and the budget is already approved.”

It seems that decisions regarding space are driven more by claustrophobia or perceived worth than actual need.   Flow distance may double or triple as a result of expansion, but additional space somehow still equates to growth.   More space is viewed as an investment, an alluring addition to the balance sheet, or a badge of success.   Only on rare occasions do I encounter a growing business that is interested in reducing space. Perhaps, then, space is the final frontier.  Not more space, but less.   I wonder how much Lean progress would be made if space were seen as a constraint for business as it was for NASA’s Mercury launch.

How much space do you have?  Too much?  Too little? Share a story.


PS I’m teaching the Shingo Institute workshop “Continuous Improvement” at MassMutual in Springfield next week and a few seats remain if you’d like to join us. Learn more here.

PPS I’m also looking forward to presenting my monthly “Tea Time with The Toast Dude” webinar on June 20th. It’s free! The topic is “Silver Bullet Mania”. Intrigued? Read more and register here.

Systems Tinking

At GBMP’s launch of the Shingo Institute’s BUILD EXCELLENCE workshop, it occurred to me that perhaps systems thinking might be more aptly named systems rethinking.  Workshop participants offered up current systems in their organizations that actually impeded continuous improvement, each time expressing frustration with the difficulty to create system change.  For larger organizations with more explicit codification of systems, the task to create a change was more onerous.  One class participant commented, “Our standard procedures are documented in dozens of binders – all of them covered with dust.”   But even in smaller organizations, creating a new system will mean undoing a de facto process that, despite its shortcomings, feels normal.

According to the Shingo Institute, these systems are the domain of managers who should be reviewing them regularly.  But, when business systems are ingrained as part of the corporate fabric, the idea of changing even one of them instills concern regarding the global effects.  Will changing one system negatively impact others?  Concern for unanticipated consequences will trigger risk-averse behavior.  Add to that challenge the fact that existing systems may, in fact, have been authored by the same persons who are now charged with evaluating their effectiveness.  When Shigeo Shingo declared that subjective inspection of one’s own work is not good practice, he might have included the work of managers along with that of front line employees.    It would be better apparently for these organizations to have no systems to start their Lean journeys than to be saddled with status quo systems that evoke the wrong behaviors.  So, what can be done?

According to the Shingo Institute:

First, stop basing the design of systems purely on local results.  This practice creates silos and disharmony.  Each part of the organization is rewarded as if it were its own company, rather than for its contribution to system goals.   Speaking at a Shingo Conference many years ago, Russ Scaffede, formerly an executive at General Motors (and later at Toyota) quipped, “At GM we used to say ‘All of our divisions made money, only the corporation lost its shirt.’”   That is the status quo condition for many organizations: local bogeys driven by systems that simply don’t knit together.

Second, consider the foundational principles beneath the Lean tools, or, as Shigeo Shingo noted, first ‘know-why’ before you ‘know-how.’  Many organizations parrot the tools without understanding the philosophy that makes them effective.  Simply layering tools on top of a faulty philosophy also generates disharmony rather than real results.   Many organizations, for example, have invested time to develop a quality system like ISO including QC tools and problem-solving methods; but employees are afraid to report problems for fear of reprisal.  Shingo Principles articulate the culture that must be present to make systems work.

sytems_tinkeringFinally, to avoid concerns regarding the interdependency of systems, i.e., the unanticipated consequences make the changes small; in the words of Masaaki Imai, “create many small changes for the better.”   Don’t let the policy books gather dust; review and update them often.   To use a metaphor from knitting,  check and adjust your systems one thread at a time.  Don’t let the knitting unravel.  It’s called tinking, the process of taking knitting back stitch by stitch to correct a problem in the fabric. (Tink is knit spelled backward.)   In this case, let’s call it “Systems Tinking.”


P.S. Speaking of the ‘know-why’ before the ‘know-how’, GBMP’s  Lean conference is coming to Worcester MA on September 19-20. The theme for our 13th annual event – “The Integration of Culture & Tools” – will be an exploration of the value of Lean tools when embedded with a Lean culture. I know September feels like a long way off, but it’ll be here before you know it. The event features four keynote presenters including Paul Akers, author of ‘2-Second Lean’ & Brian Wellinghoff from Barry Wehmiller, plus 30+ breakout sessions and more than a dozen poster presentations for yokoten in our Community of Lean Lounge. Simply put, it’s the best opportunity for Lean learning and networking with professionals just like yourself – passionate Lean practitioners. Early bird registration discount (save close to $200!)  in effect through May 31. That’s tomorrow folks. I hope you take advantage of the savings. But don’t take my word for it. Check out the agenda at a glance, testimonials and photos from last year’s event and much much more on the website and decide for yourself. I sure hope to see you in September!



I grew up in a small manufacturing company where nine different languages were spoken.  English was the language of managers, office workers and some of our production employees. Additionally, these languages were spoken in our factory:  Armenian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Italian, Creole, French, and Spanish.   We were a melting pot, rich with different cultures, but without a common language.  The factory was a veritable Tower of Babel.  If workers had ideas or were struggling with a problem, the language barrier held them back.  Talented workers were yoked to simple repetitive tasks, limited by their inability to communicate. This was frustrating for employees and managers, and completely at odds with our continuous improvement aspirations.  In 1987, my company made a critical investment to teach English a second language, ESL, to non-English speaking employees.  In an ironic twist, we took advantage of the ESL classes to teach TPS concepts, which contained many Japanese words like Kaizen or Poka-Yoke.  Students were learning English and TPS at the same time.  The classes were voluntary, but nearly everyone who could benefit signed up.  In retrospect, it was the single most important step taken to unlock the capabilities of all of our employees.  Over a two-year period, we found a common language and a shared understanding of TPS.    Employees blossomed, ideas began to flow and a powerful grassroots improvement process was launched.  The investment to provide a common language was an unqualified success.

Around the same time, however, I discovered that among native English-speaking white collar employees there existed another Tower of Babel that was at least as significant as the one from the shop floor that derived from the ambiguity of our English language.  Common terms to describe business processes turned out not to be so aligned as thought. For example, as a young marketing employee working at industry trade shows, I displayed cardboard markups of potential new products that our salespeople referred to as released. “How can you call them released?” I asked an older salesman.  He replied, “If I don’t get an order for this, we’ll never produce it. Nothing happens until we get an order.”  Such was his worldview. If a potential product made it to a trade show, it was released, i.e., mandated for sale.

Later in my career, I transitioned from marketing to IT where, as a bystander to new product development, I cataloged these additional definitions by department for the term “released.”  Depending upon your venue, a new product was considered released:

  • In Design and Drafting, when the part and assembly drawings and bills of material were completed.
  • In Purchasing and Inventory Control, when the parts were on order.
  • In Manufacturing Engineering, when the assembly fixtures were installed and tested
  • In Quality, when the inspection plan was complete.
  • In Production, when the pre-production runs were successfully completed. (In some cases, the new product development process had lagged to such a point that the pre-production run was sold to customers.)

Each department used the word “released” to describe its local part of the push system, yet none really understood the relative imprecision of the word.  Depending upon who was speaking to whom, the meaning of released could be radically different.

The ambiguity of the English language can be confounding, setting up numerous miscommunications and occasional disastrous handoffs.  It occurs to me that if we are to address continuous improvement from a systems perspective, then we need a systems language to clarify key concepts for our organizations.  Call it ESL:  Enterprise Systems Language.  Can you think of examples of babel in your organization that we can add to the new ESL lexicon?  Please share a couple.


PS I’m presenting a free 45-minute webinar on Thursday, March 23. I’ll be reflecting on my lean learning over the past three decades – much of it a result of learning from mistakes. Learn more and register here.

PPS I’ll be teaching the foundational Shingo Institute workshop, Discover Excellence, on June 1-2, 2017 at Fort Wayne Metals in Fort Wayne, IN. Read more and register here. See the full schedule of upcoming Shingo Insitute workshops here – including Cultural Enablers, Continuous Improvement, Enterprise Alignment and the brand new workshop, Build Excellence.


Most often when we think of a wheel, it’s in the context of transportation, one of the more obvious and ever-present of the 7 wastes.   In fact, the first likely use of a wheel and axle was not for transport but for processing – actual work.  According to the Smithsonian, the potter’s wheel dates to 3500 BC.  The wheel and axle wasn’t used for human transport (chariot) for several hundred more years; and the idea of carting material apparently took several millennia after that!  The wheelbarrow was invented around 100 AD in China, and it took another thousand years more for it to appear in Europe.

cartwheelsFrom a human standpoint these conveyance devices are designed to reduce strain.  In a technical sense, it can be said they multiply our capability to do work; at least the force-times-distance kind of work: W= f x d.   Problem is, that although conveying material on wheels is embedded in our thinking as an improvement over manual transport it’s actually a mechanization of waste.  We may think the wheel has multiplied our ability to do work, but it really has multiplied the amount of waste we can create.  Odd.

Over the centuries additional wheels were added to the basic cart, enabling conveyance of even more material with less work [sic] in a single trip. Then, in 1936, the invention of the shopping cart at Humpty Dumpty supermarkets became the prototype for more recent improvements to conveyance:  A four-wheel, multi-level steel wire cart, this invention replaced a hand-carried basket, enabling shoppers to gather all groceries in a single pass.  The shopping cart, however, also required wider aisles and larger checkout counters.   Then the aisles were widened again, this time to accommodate pallet loading of the larger amounts of material needed to accommodate a new concept: EOQ.   Why buy just a little, when you can have so much more in an economy pack? Carriages became larger still to accommodate bulk quantity shopping.  All of these innovations were intended to make it easier for the customer to buy more – and, of course, to encourage them to buy more.

There are more than a few parallels in industry.  AVG’s, pallet jacks, forklifts, and conveyors are all “improvements” on the basic cart.  These machines typically require wider aisles, deeper and higher shelving, new training, and maintenance and, of course, more space to park the machines – kind of like the tail wagging the dog. Too often, rather than rethinking the cause of the waste, we automate around it.  Shigeo Shingo referred to these as “superficial improvements.”  An automatic guided vehicle (AGV) mechanizes the waste of transportation; or an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) facilitates the waste of storage.  Worker strain may be reduced by a superficial improvement, but the actual waste remains and sometimes even increases.  A stockroom manager, for example, lamented to me recently “I have less people now, but it takes longer to kit a job than when we did it manually.  The machine is a bottleneck and the factory waits for parts.”  Unfortunately, these expensive superficial improvements become sunk costs, hard to undo because they are depreciable assets. Thank you, management accounting.

One more insidious re-invention of the wheel is the stationery or almost-stationery wheel.  To the casual observer, these are the wheels that are on the cart that appears as if it’s for transportation; actually, that cart never moves except to move it out of the way.  Moveable storage becomes an option when material staged in front of a process has overflowed to a point that it must be staged in the aisles; funny that this is called “work in process.”  Of all uses or abuses of the wheel, this one is tops on my personal list: the appearance of conveyance.  We assume that if there is a wheel, then there must be movement.  Mr. Shingo’s comment that the “The worst waste is the one we cannot see” comes to mind.

Here is an improvement exercise for you to try in your own facility:  First take an inventory of carts and answer these questions:

  • What is the total number of carts?
  • What is the total floor space they occupy?
  • How many are actually used for conveyance?
  • How many are really only for storage or are kept on hand in case of storage overflow?
  • How can you reduce each of these numbers by half?

Please let me know how much production space you liberate.


PS GBMP, a licensed affiliate of the Shingo Insitute, is offering the following workshops in the coming months. The courses introduce the Shingo Model™ and Guiding Principles on which to anchor your current continuous improvement initiatives and to fill the gaps in your efforts towards ideal results and enterprise excellence. Consider joining us at an event near you soon. To read more and register visit http://www.gbmp.org/shingo-institute-courses.html

Here are a few testimonials from happy participants, followed by the schedule.

“Discovering Shingo with such a dedicated instructor helped our team gain a better understanding The Shingo Model. The workshops were engaging and we all came out of the classes with a much better idea of what we need to do as a company to continue to grow.

“The instructor made us feel that we were really learning from each other. When we were broken up into groups, he was always nearby and available to facilitate, but didn’t hover or impose his viewpoints – we came to our own conclusions as a group – and he was generous in his recognition of others’ input and viewpoints. 

“The Discover Excellence workshop was great. It challenged us to think differently. Going to Gemba at the host site was fantastic. I like that our instructor took part in the Gemba walks as a participant. We were all learning together and challenging each other’s assumptions or understandings of model, which in turn led to a much deeper understanding. 


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.