Kaizen Progression and Continuous Improvement

Adapting Continuous Improvement Tools to fit the Situation

Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning “improvement”, or “change for the better” – referring to the entire Continuous Improvement process. Lean Enterprise is modeled after the Toyota Production System, and most Lean Tools were generated at Toyota. A Lean Transformation is a journey taken by an organization to realign its processes around what their customer considers valuable – those features, benefits, and activities which physically transform the product. The task becomes one of identifying and eliminating non-value added processes when and wherever possible. The method of eliminating waste changes as the organization’s lean journey evolves.

There are a number of means of achieving kaizen in the organization. The change method varies based on what stage the Lean Journey is in, the problem at hand, and the “maturity” of the people involved in the change. They range from full blown classes to department shutdowns to a mentoring/coaching process. Like other lean tools such as kanban and visual controls, each has its proper use.

Leadership issues and advanced training

Leaders in the organization should strive to create a vision and mission for the organization and align principles and policies to encourage Operational Excellence. The vision and principles act as a compass for the organization and become the foundation for all corporate policies and decisions. A good model for principles supporting concepts can be found at Shingo Prize.  Changing an organization is like turning a battleship – it must be done carefully and it doesn’t happen in an instant. Of course with practice and a committed commander and leadership team the change will happen much quicker. If the change is led from the Top, much of the early training can be more widespread. If the change is being led from the Middle, the training will be more concentrated in pockets of early adopters (see my post on the The Guerilla Manager“). Regardless of leadership issues, many change efforts are over sold and suffer from high expectations, which are quickly dashed. It is often wise to start small and gain some victories in order to establish and build momentum in your change efforts. As the organization begins to experience change the change leaders need to continue to exploit easy opportunities and continue to spread a foundation for further change (see The Four Drivers of Lean Manufacturing).

Early in the journey the most urgent need is to educate the members of the organization in the principles and tools of the Lean Enterprise. Of course those who will lead the change must have a much more profound understanding of the tools as well as having very good teaching skills and emotional intelligence. Much of the early education may take place in a classroom setting and would ideally by punctuated by tours of other organizations farther along in their lean journeys, both for learning and benchmarking.

Kaizen Events

The next progression of the Lean Journey is typically a series of Kaizen Events, specific multi-day change events focusing on improving one specific process or series of processes in a specific area. Kaizen events, or Kaizen Blitz (for rapid change), are concentrated improvement efforts involving the Process Owner along with members of her team and representatives of the process customers and suppliers as well as support from the Continuous Improvement team and Quality or Engineering, as appropriate. Typical Kaizen events include value stream mapping to “see” the current process and ideal future state. The value stream map can be used to identify the scope of the current event as well as identify opportunities for future Kaizen Blitzes. The scope of the kaizen event must be limited to what the team can accomplish during the event (typically 2-5 days) along with some follow-up activities taking no longer than 30 days. If the scope is larger than that, it is a project, not an event, and must be managed as such.



Due to their focus and concentration of resources, multi-day kaizens events can be very powerful in both discovery and elimination of waste. Each kaizen blitz participant becomes owner of the solution, and they can have a strong way to build commitment to the lean process. Participation builds engagement, and engagement builds momentum.

Mini Kaizen

An alternative to full-blown multi-day Kaizen events is the Mini Kaizen, consisting of two half-day sessions followed by a full day session (can be a Saturday) in which the major implementation takes place. Mini Kaizens are appropriate for many smaller efforts and may in fact be the only type available to lean efforts which don’t have budget or air cover from Top Leadership. Despite their obvious limitations in time and resources, the power of Mini Kaizens to effect major change should not be underestimated. Though the scope is limited by the time resources, the participation builds engagement, just as the multi-day full-blown Kaizen Events.

Problem Solving

At the heart of any Continuous Improvement effort is problem solving. Kaizen events help identify and define the problem. The principle problem solving technique employed by the lean enterprise is the Deming Wheel, otherwise known as PDCA cycle, short for Plan, Do, Check, Act:


PDCA cycles are a vehicle for rapid and robust experimentation.  Upon encountering an obstacle or setback on its approach to its Target Condition (the Future State or an intermediate Future State defined by your value stream map), the organization uses the PDCA approach to overcome the obstacle, quickly isolating one variable at a time and testing until a new standard work is achieved.

The progression of PDCA cycles continues as the organization approaches the Target Condition, or Future State, much like climbing a stairway.  Each small improvement (kaizen) is followed by a period of rest and reflection (standardized work), and each improvement gets you closer and closer to achieving the Target Condition.  Properly designed, each step yields process improvements and a reduction in waste.


A whole host of six sigma techniques focus on problem solving and can be used in conjunction with lean improvement efforts. Six Sigma employs a technique known as DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control). The sigma toolbox includes brainstorming, Pareto and fish bone diagrams, data analysis, process capability analysis, root cause analysis, design of experiments, and others. These tools are often used in conjunction with Lean and called Lean Six Sigma.

Coaching and Mentoring with A3

Many of the obstacles to achieving Target Conditions are either too small in scope or are simply too large a project for a kaizen event.  As the management team improves their knowledge of lean tools and problem solving techniques, many of these problems can be addressed using what is known as an A3.  Simply put, A3 is the name of an 11″x17″ paper, and the A3 process consists of analyzing the entire problem on a single sheet of A3 size paper.  The idea is to tell a story, from beginning to end, using pictures and charts, graphics, and bullet points.  To do so, each element must be concise and show clear thinking (one of the benefits of the A3 method).  A sample storyboard is as follows:

A3 formats may vary – just make sure the entire story is included in the A3. I have seen a wide variety of formats from Sales Analysis to Product Development to designing a garage.  All of the principle problem solving elements are there:  Background/Problem statement, analysis of current conditions, goals and targets (future state), analysis, proposed counter measures, improvement plan, and follow-up.


Like PDCA, the A3 is an iterative process.  The background and problem statement should be clearly worked out before too much thought can be given to analysis and countermeasures.  It’s a good idea to fill one out with pencil – there will undoubtedly be lots of erasing as the story develops.

The A3 is an excellent basis for mentoring.  The mentee, presumably less experienced in problem solving, presents the mentor with a partially developed A3 for review.  It is vitally important that the Mentor merely ask thought-provoking questions of the mentee, sending her back numerous times as necessary until the actual problem statement is well-defined, and so forth.  The A3 documents the interchange, the problem gets closer and closer to resolution, and the mentee sharpens her perception of both problem solving and the problem at hand.

In addition to mentoring, the A3 can be used in conjunction with other forms of kaizen (multi-day event or mini kaizen) as the “storyboard” and as a means of capturing the knowledge in one succinct document.  A3’s are an excellent digest capturing the “critical few” key points – the essence – of the problem and its resolution.  The A3 can be easily circulated and the learning shared distributed if it follows the 5:5:5 rule:  It should take a mere 5 seconds to see what the purpose of the A3 (or event) was, 5 minutes to study and capture the learning points, and 5 hours to thoroughly investigate and understand the findings.  Think about ways to capture the knowledge contained in the A3 through a good filing and archival system.  Each A3 should have keywords and an easy abstract and retrieval.

Copyright 2012 by Paul Yandell.  Let Value Stream Focus LLC help you get your organization moving on a path of Continuous Improvement and Cost Reduction.  Call 760-500-6006 or email pryandell@valuestreamfocus.com.



One thought on “Kaizen Progression and Continuous Improvement

  1. Pingback: Change Management | paulyandell

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