Sometimes people struggle with my application of the English language, and, in fact, some people find great entertainment value in running my phraseology through online translators – converting it from the original to German or Mandarin, then back again just to see how phrases like " a skunk at the lean garden party" come back. I imagine my grandmother, a high school English teacher for over 40 years, looks down on my writing from heaven with stern disapproval. Recognizing my limitations, I went to a dictionary to look up a couple of words, just to make sure my lack of interest in ‘kaizen events’ was not the result of a shortcoming in my education. Here’s what I found:
The definition of an ‘event’ – as in ‘kaizen event’ – is a phenomenon located at a single point in space-time. At least that’s what one person my grandmother would approve of thinks.
On the other hand, the definition of ‘continuous’ – as in ‘continuous improvement’ – is continuing in time or space without interruption, according to the same expert.
I vaguely recall a law of math, or physics, or maybe I just made it up, but you cannot put two points on a line so close to each other that they intersect. Whatever two numbers they represent, there is always another number bigger than one and smaller than the other that can be shoehorned between them. In other words, you cannot have enough ‘events’ to make them continuous. The event has starting and ending points, while continuous improvement just rolls on and on.
"So what?", you might ask. I’ll tell you. You cannot ‘kaizen event’ yourself to continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is the guiding principle of lean. It is what lean is all about. Kaizen events are always going to be, well, events. When the event is concluded, the participants will go off to something else, maybe back to their regular responsibilities and maybe on to another event, but they will not keep working on the same thing. Continuous improvement, on the other hand, means there is never a stopping point. There is never a time for giving each other a hearty pat on the back and saying, "job well done", and moving elsewhere. Continuous improvement means that nobody can go back to what they were doing before, or move off to something else that needs improving. Their full time job is continuously improving the process within they work, and the job is never complete. That means a completely different business model.
I bring this up because of an email I received yesterday from someone whose company has decided to ‘become lean’ and a knotty question they are wrestling with is how to prioritize the things that are screwed up in the company and assign them to the people available to conduct kaizen events. I don’t want to mention the name of the company because the email was private and their lean foibles are not something out there in the public domain, but they are very big and very well known. My advice to them: make your first ‘event’ a serious lean education event for senior management. The right training will disavow them of the notion that they are going to become ‘lean’ by conducting a whole bunch of projects, kaizen event projects or otherwise.
This is the same terrible weakness in most Six Sigma Black Belt strategies. The black belts are often nothing more than project specialists, deployed around the company fixing this or that or the other thing with no continuity, claiming great savings and great improvements in isolated areas, Without a sense of how the project area fits into the overall process, and with no responsibility or ownership in the ongoing performance of the area in question, they actually accomplish very little of a permanent or ongoing nature.
The starting point for lean has to be a fundamental realignment of the machines, people, organization and performance metrics along the lines of the value streams such that everyone knows their roles in the process and has formal, permanent responsibility for the continuous improvement of the overall performance of the processes. Once that is done, and the company is structured physically and managerially to a lean model, kaizen events to kill particularly big snakes, or to grab particularly lucrative opportunities are a fine idea.
Just to demonstrate my sensitive side, I will forgo the usual sports and war analogies and offer you this one: A good way to understand it is to view kaizen events as dates, and lean as marriage. You cannot possibly go out on enough dates with someone to have your relationship equate to marriage. After you are married, however, occasional dates with your spouse are a very good way to enhance and strengthen the marriage.
I believe the analogy goes even further. The difference between dating and marriage is commitment. The difference between scads of kaizen events or busloads of black belts, and actually making that fundamental realignment of resources and systems to a lean model is also commitment. Perhaps the reason many companies have for poor results from their lean efforts is that most guys seem to have a real problem with commitment.