Lean Tinkers by Bob Emiliani

Lean Tinkers

Oh kaizen, dear kaizen, what has happened to you? This beautiful, human-centered process for learning, creativity, teamwork, and making improvements, both large and small, has been reduced to a yet another tool used incorrectly by managers. Lean thinkers? Hardly. Lean tinkers? More than you can imagine. How do I know this? Let me explain.

In the graduate-level Lean leadership course that I teach each semester, I ask my students, almost all of whom are full-time working professionals, the following question about kaizen: “How is kaizen understood and applied by senior managers in your organization?” Here are some of their responses (edited for clarity):

“Senior management seems to allow kaizen rather than encourage it. As they see it, kaizen is an activity to be used by the operations team to fix problems. People use kaizen to fix specific problems, instead of for continuous improvement. Unfortunately, the director of finance has been able to squash ideas that have come from kaizen.”

“Senior management uses kaizen as a way of fixing the systems and processes that are not working, not to improve any and all processes. Kaizen is done in isolation. There will be a ‘kaizen event,’ then no review, or no time for continuous improvement. Senior management does not participate in kaizen or attend daily close-out meetings. Kaizen is reserved for operations and does not extend to finance or sales.”

“Kaizen is understood in my company as a fast, once-a-quarter approach to reducing cost. Kaizen is used infrequently and never checked on to see if improvements actually stuck or could be improved even more.”

“If kaizen occurs, most of the senior managers will ignore it or say it requires more money to make the changes. Middle managers have to fight with senior managers to do kaizen and implement the results.”

“Their idea of a kaizen is to come to our shops and make changes they thought were necessary without any consultation from the people that work there. They don’t believe in accessing the knowledge of the people who do the job every day.”

“Improving processes is corrupted by the organization’s goal save money. No attention is given to supervisor development or coaching, and it lacks top management support. Kaizen is job elimination under the guise of process improvement. They have failed to eliminate batch-and-queue processes.”

“We are unable to do kaizen without the boss’s approval. There is no reward for ideas. They blame people when processes don’t work. Certain people are seen as problem-solvers, while the rest are seen as problem-causers. In this environment, few people make suggestions for fear of being blamed or losing their job.”

“What we have are ‘kaizen events,’ which are just that; ‘events’ that have a start and end date with specific goals to achieve. Once the ‘event’ is over and the goals achieved, everyone involved gets a certificate and a round of applause, and that is the end of it. Our ops manager does mention that we all should continue and build on the improvements made, but expectations are not established and there are no follow-up discussions.”

“Managers don’t support and attend the kaizen. They expect changes to be made by the group of people involved in the kaizen, which never happens, and management doesn’t follow up. People think kaizen is a joke. There was a kaizen for changing around our whole area which was supposed to be attended by the president of the company, but was postponed twice due to conflicts which his schedule. When the kaizen finally happened, the president never attended or showed his face in any facet of the kaizen.”

“Senior managers don’t understand kaizen correctly because they don’t accept suggestion from others. They accept only their own suggestions.”

“In our monthly meetings, the workers get slammed publicly if they don’t participate in kaizen.”
This is wrong, all wrong. Who taught these managers kaizen? How did so many senior managers mangle kaizen? This seems more the result of management performed as a hobby rather than management practiced as a profession. This is not kaizen. It is something else and deserves its own name, one that reflects an activity that goes nowhere: “Möbius kaizen,” after the Möbius strip, a one-sided surface with one edge.

Managers think they are doing something new and different with kaizen, but because they misunderstand and use it incorrectly the business ends up where it was before kaizen – lacking the ability to improve its processes. The general state of management and leadership remain unchanged as well. No learning has taken place, and kaizen has had no real impact in these organizations – other than to be seen as a joke or as a means to lay people off.

Lean management requires curiosity and imagination. The few examples of REAL Lean that we have, and the many examples of Fake Lean, indicate there is very little curiosity or imagination among the leaders of organizations. As the above answers illustrate, kaizen is used by most senior managers to conform, not to transform people, processes, and the business.

If managers are not undergoing profound personal transformations in thinking and doing as a result of kaizen, like a caterpillar to a butterfly, then something is terribly wrong. As Art Byrne says, “Kaizen is good for you.” I agree. But, that is true only if kaizen is understood and practiced correctly. Our collective, decades-long effort to create Lean thinkers – butterflies – among senior managers has fallen far short. Even the most optimistic among us must concede that. What we have done instead is create legions of Lean tinkers – we have been feeding hungry caterpillars that refuse to undergo metamorphosis.

We have a major failure to analyze, but A3 reports are inadequate because they do not examine managers’ beliefs and untested assumptions, decision-making traps, and the different forms of illogical thinking that contribute to the observed effect. My A4 failure analysis method (see Moving Forward Faster, Appendix IV) is a much better choice for this type of problem.

I will ask my graduate students to analyze this failure and let you know the outcome. In the meantime, why don’t you try to determine the root causes and identify practical countermeasures. Maybe together we can figure out how to transform legions of Lean tinkers into many more Lean thinkers.

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