The Stages of Lean and the Art of Kaizen

The Stages of Lean (according to Dwight)

  1. Beginner implemented one Value Stream Map “future state” and are experiencing the “honeymoon effect” Improvement is daily, and progress is fast.
  2. Stalling dealing with the post-honeymoon condition. Lean isn’t as much fun and is no longer new. It still makes sense, but it’s getting a little stale. You get what you measure. What are you measuring?
  3. Stalled Lean is part of how we do business, but aren’t we Lean now? “Why do we have to continuously improve? We are better than our competition.” What has been standardized? What are you measuring?
  4. Re-emergence perhaps stimulated by some competitive failure, followed by deep soul searching, commitment and delivery of a carefully audited plan. Not making it to this step defines failure. All companies will stall sometime, some worse than others, it’s how they emerge that will make the difference. Courage, commitment and integrity are the keys. Oh yeah, don’t forget to measure.
  5. Sustainability the entrance to the “promised land” is in sight. We constantly audit our standardization, measure and post key results. Continuous improvement is a natural component of our workday and an expectation of all employees. By the way, don’t expect to ever get to the “promised land” but never quit trying.

I suspect if Taiichi Ohno or Shigeo Shingo were alive and paid me the honor of reading this, they might say… ART!!!??? That being said, I believe the effective use of Kaizen is both art (emotions, opinions, creative, situational, political) and science (balance, flow, rules, standardization, measurable etc). I offer Kaizen as a blend of art and science, with a large helping of common sense on the side.

So what is Kaizen? The Kaizen Institute, ,refers to Kaizen as an effective process when it “accomplishes sustainable implementation through the development of the internal structure for deployment and developing strategies that enable the workforce (at all levels) to maintain Continuous Improvement initiatives.
Bruce Hamilton, President of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (and the star of”Toast Kaizen”, refers to kaizen as “small and continuous improvements”. Kaizen uses direct observation and collective thinking to identify and eliminate waste “Muda”, unevenness interrupting flow “Mura” and strenuous conditions of workers, machines and work in process “Muri”.

How do you select areas to Kaizen?

Beginner – When you are just beginning you Lean journey, I have found Value Stream Mapping to be the best place to start. This will clarify opportunity and avoid possible “Kaizen drive-bys” which waste both resources and system credibility.

Stalling and Stalled – So you have done several Value Stream Maps, and have implemented toward your Future conditions. How can you effectively use Kaizen? Find the weakest point in your value stream (perhaps administrative) and “Kaizen” out the waste.

How do you select Kaizen teams? Well, tell me about your lean training has everyone been trained? What do you mean by “trained”? If all the problems are being defined by leadership who then go out recruiting Kaizen team members, either you have not trained effectively or no one believes you will support him or her when the going gets tough. This is not sustainable.

Re-emergence – You have identified and eliminated your cultural and training weaknesses allowing the continuous to gather momentum… Congratulations

Sustainability – Our objective, when there you are fiercely competitive and getting stronger, people love to work there and we make things simple, have fun and make money. Not bad eh?


  1. Bruce Hamilton

    With regard to the topic “what is kaizen?”, here is short piece I wrote recently which expresses my thoughts on the subject:

    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 commonsense and experience of the people who do the work.”

    Thus, many small improvements chipped away 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, however 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 shopfloor,” as they say, “but you can’t make him see.” And sometimes you can’t even lead him to the shopfloor! 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 as 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 which 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 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 twenty years ago is the “Key to Japan’s Competitive Success.” Sadly, my friend may be right; maybe 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, now it’s still Kaizen: many small (but organization transforming) improvements that come from the common sense and experience of the people who do the work. Everybody, everyday.

    Bruce Hamilton
    August 2006

  2. Andrew Bishop

    Remarkable. Paragraph 5, including the sentence “The big brain theorists have morphed kaizen into events”, is as powerful a dismissal of the “kaizen event” approach as I have read. Almost comes up to the actual visceral experience of being hit by a “drive by kaizen”. We learned something in these drive-bys (constructive technical lessons, negative human/cultural lessons) but they are a thing of the past here (over my dead body!)

    Rich Hollenbach (our production services manager) has an unattributed quotation hung on his wall:
    “Lean is about developing people with a pragmatic attitude to resolving problems as they appear”. I see Bruce Hamilton’s remarks as essentailly an expansion of this view. PDCA as the core of work for everybody, everyday: strategy on a long cycle, operational plans on shorter quarterly, monthly, or weekly cycles, activities at the bench level moment-by-moment.



    Andrew L. Bishop
    General Manager, Yoder Brothers, Inc.
    2369 Old Philadelphia Pike
    Lancaster, PA 17602

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