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Accelerating Kaizen - Raphael L. Vitalo, Ph.D. and Frank P. Butz

How We Accelerate Kaizen
Shorten Preparation
  • Get the Right Contacts
  • Make Your Contacts Smart Fast
  • Push to Resolve Delays
  • Repeat What Works
  • Don't Jettison Your Process
  • Shorten Execution
  • Conduct a Pre-Event Workshop
  • Build the Work Process Description Before the Event
  • Do the Walk Through as Part of the Workshop
  • Reap the Benefits
  • About the Authors
  • Raphael L. Vitalo
  • Frank P. Butz
  • Feedback Please

    Kaizen (pronounced ki-zen) is the Japanese word for continuous improvement. As we use the term, it is a problem solving method that strives toward perfection by eliminating waste. Kaizen understands waste to be any activity that is not value adding from the perspective of the customer. Work is value adding when it is done right the first time and materially changes a product or service in ways for which a well-informed and reasonable customer is willing to pay. Our process for Kaizen empowers people with tools and a methodology that enable them to focus their improvement efforts, evaluate a work process to uncover improvement opportunities, generate and test improvement ideas, select the best ideas, and make and measure change. We use an initial Kaizen event to make immediate improvements in business results, demonstrate the power of Kaizen, and prepare employees to carry forward Kaizen as a regular part of their work activities.

    How We Accelerate Kaizen

    We break the cycle time for a Kaizen event into two components: preparation and execution. "How can we speed the process?" There two ways to accelerate Kaizen, shorten the period from request to the beginning of the event and shorten the time needed to complete the event itself.

    Shorten Preparation

    When doing Kaizen events outside your own workplace, your preparations for the event require working through others and learning from them. Your key responsibilities are to define the scope of the event, assess whether it makes sense, engage the support of key stakeholders, prepare your team, and arrange logistics (Exhibit 1).


    Exhibit 1. Preparation Tasks for Leading a Kaizen Event

    1. Define the scope of the event,
    2. Assess whether the event makes business sense.
    3. Involve key stakeholders.
    4. Prepare your team, and
    5. Arrange logistics.



    Typically, a first-time Kaizen event outside your own workplace will take not less than four weeks to conceive, plan, and arrange—yet, our experienced Kaizen leaders may spend as little as three days of effort to complete their work, given the processes and materials we have developed. So why does the preparation cycle take four calendar weeks or more? Waste! The major source of waste is wait. Search is the second source. The preparation will hang in wait states because of missing information, uninformed people, unavailable people, hanging decisions, uncertain commitment from leaders and managers, and schedule conflicts.

    Time will be spent on searching for information that exists but whose location is not known. You will also search to identify the "right" people to help you arrange the event.

    To reduce these sources of waste you must be proactive and diligent throughout. Here are four keys to shortening the period from initial request for an event to beginning the event itself.

    1. Get the right contacts.
    2. Make your contacts smart fast.
    3. Push to resolve preparation issues.
    4. Repeat what works.


    Get the Right Contacts

    The people critical to swiftly completing the preparations for an event are: its sponsor, the event coordinator, the key stakeholders, and the team who will implement the event.


    The sponsor is typically the work process manager. He or she should be seeking the event to advance a business objective by improving the performance of his or her work process. You need to meet directly with the sponsor to understand the background leading to requesting the event and to gather basic business information. You also need the sponsor's expectations for the Kaizen event and what "do's and don'ts" he or she expects the Kaizen team to observe. It is important that get this information first hand so that you are certain of the focus for the proposed event and the results it should produce. This information will also allow you to begin defining the scope of the event, which is the first milestone in preparation. The sponsor also needs to identify who will be the event coordinator (see below) and, if that person is not directly knowledgeable of the target work process, who will provide you detailed information about the work process.

    Event Coordinator

    The event coordinator is the person with whom you coordinate logistics and someone from whom you can learn details of the target work process and get insight into the people who execute it. In a small operation, this might be the sponsor, but in large businesses, this is rare.

    You need to understand what you require from the event coordinator to make sure the right person is assigned to the role. For example, our scope document has three sections and the event coordinator must supply information for each. The first section tells about the business within which the work process operates, its products, key customer values, and current business drivers. The second tells about the work process itself including its output, cycle time, staffing, and use of machines among other details. The third section tells about the expectations for the event and information needed to plan it (e.g., proposed team members, key stakeholders). The coordinator must have this information or be able to access it for you quickly.

    The coordinator must also be privy to the thinking behind the request for doing the Kaizen event so that the information he or she adds is consistent with the sponsor's purposes. To speed preparation, the coordinator must to be available to you and provide timely turnaround on requests for information, ideas, and feedback. This means the person should have a schedule and workload that allows him or her to be reached and to return calls promptly and to spend time on the preparation tasks he or she must complete. Check this out with the event's sponsor. A person who will be on travel or is already juggling multiple competing assignments is not likely to meet your needs.

    The tasks the event coordinator will perform are:

    • Provide the detailed information needed to complete the scope document for the Kaizen event or designate a person who can.
    • Provide feedback on the draft scope document to ensure that it correctly captures the information he or she supplied.
    • Handle on-site logistics and assist with travel arrangements or designate a person to do these tasks.
    • Assist with communication tasks associated with the Kaizen event.

    The event coordinator must act as the local contact able to respond to questions from employees about the event and prompt team members to be available and on time for the event. Following the event, the coordinator continues to communicate about what the team did during the event and what results it produced.

    • Select and arrange for an appropriate gift (e.g., ball cap, coffee mug, T-shirt, department store gift card) to be given to team members.
    • Provide input and feedback on decisions related to preparing for and conducting the event and ensuring the effective follow through on its results.
    • Follow up on action items coming out of the Kaizen event, as required.

    The event coordinator must act as the local support to the Kaizen team post event as the team follows through on action items developed in the event.

    Be sure to get the event coordinator's mailing address, e-mail address, and telephone number when speaking with the event's sponsor. Also, determine when the person may be first contacted. This contact should not occur before the individual knows about his or her designation as the event coordinator. Encourage the sponsor to immediately alert the coordinator of his or her assignment so that you can proceed with preparing for the event. Finally, if the coordinator cannot fulfill a task of the role, get the name and contact information of a person who can.

    Key Stakeholders

    Stakeholders are individuals or groups who may either affect the success of an event or be affected by its occurrence. Key stakeholders are a subset of all stakeholders who have authority over whether the event happens or whether the changes proposed for the target work process get implemented. The key stakeholders to an event usually include, at a minimum, the sponsor of the event, the manager of the target work process and his or her manager, and the head or his or her designee of each organization outside the target work process that must be consulted before the target work process may be modified. Engaging the key stakeholders up front in defining and verifying the scope of the event is critical to the event's success and especially to the continued implementation of the improvements it generates. This is especially true when the work process you are improving is multi-departmental. In these cases especially, it is unlikely that any improvement will be adopted unless all affected departments sign-off on them.

    Each key stakeholder must participate in building the picture of the business, the target work process, and the expectations for the Kaizen event. You will need to share the draft scope document with each key stakeholder to ensure that it represents a consensus perspective. We emphasize that sharing this information with the key stakeholders for their approval ensures that all parties have a complete picture of the proposed event and that no party feels in anyway blind-sided by its outcomes. It also ensures that the Kaizen team will have a sound foundation for its work and a higher likelihood that its improvements will be sustained.

    Kaizen Team

    A Kaizen team is generally made up of six to eight members not including the leader and co-leader. Be clear about whom you need on the team. In our events, the team always includes people who operate the work process being improved, both experienced and new employees. Be certain that the proposed team has people who are knowledgeable about the machines, software systems, maintenance operations, and the work standards used in the target work process. The team should also include a representative of every organization directly involved in the problem and every organization that must be consulted before the target work process may be modified (e.g., maintenance, safety). The team should include a customer representative when the event may have an immediate impact on the customer or is taking place at the customer's site. Similarly, the team should include a supplier representative when the event may affect products or services requested from the supplier. Finally, reflect on the likely sources of the work process problem that the Kaizen event is expected to fix. This information is in your scope document. Use it to determine whether there are other people with expertise relevant to the problem that you need on the Kaizen team so that it can successfully accomplish its work.


    Make Your Contacts Smart Fast

    The people to make smart fast are the sponsor of the Kaizen event (the manager requesting it), the event coordinator, the key stakeholder, the Kaizen team members, and performers of the target work process. The sooner your first contacts are made, the sooner the event can take place. The better informed each party is about what Kaizen is and what their roles in making it happen, the faster and better the performance your event coordinator and scope information source will be able to offer.


    Exhibit 2. Agenda for Meeting with the Sponsor

    • Get sponsor's perspective on the event
    • Explain Kaizen and your Kaizen process
    • Identify key requirements for preparation
    • Explain the Sponsor's role in speeding the Kaizen process


    It is critical to meet directly with the sponsor at the earliest possible time so you can rapidly gather the sponsor's perspective on the event and alert him or her to what is needed to speed preparation for it. We use our prepared materials to orient the sponsor to what Kaizen is and to how one gets ready to do an event. Exhibit 2 provides a suggested agenda for this meeting.

    Stress with the sponsor that the simplest way to accelerate the cycle of performance is to ensure that the key requirements for a timely event are satisfied (Exhibit 3). The first of these requirements is the ready availability of the people critical to defining and preparing for the event—the event coordinator, key stakeholders, and the proposed members of the Kaizen team. The second requirement is the need for quick access to business and information—especially the work standards for the target work process. The third requirement for speed is prompt logistical support from the site where the event will be held. Make it clear that control of the preparation cycle time is in the hands of the business, not you as the Kaizen leader. Assuming that the business acts expeditiously, your preparation work can require as little as three days of effort; the remaining time is a function of the business.

    We speed orientation of the event coordinator by using a set of handouts we have prepared that explain what Kaizen is and describe the coordinator's role (see Kaizen Desk Reference Standard, R.L. Vitalo, F. Butz, and J.P. Vitalo, Lowrey Press, 2003; pages 79-82). We get these materials to the person prior to our first contact so that we can review them when we first speak with them.

    Exhibit 3. Key Requirements for Preparing for an Event

    • Coordinator
    • Key stakeholders
    • Team members
    • Business
    • Work Process
    • Expectations for the event
    • Setting
    • Materials
    • Equipment
    • Travel (if needed)

    We use similar methods when preparing key stakeholders, the Kaizen team, and the remaining performers of the target work process. For example, we prepare a package of materials tailored to each group's interest and needs and get them to the people prior to our first conversations. Some elements of the packages include:

    • A brief explanation of what a Kaizen event is
    • The name of the target work process;
    • The straw person direction for the event (i.e., drafts of the event's mission, goals, and the "do's and don'ts" with which the team must comply);
    • The date, time, and place the event will be held;
    • A list of the Kaizen team members
    • The agenda for the first day of the event;
    • Information about any personal protective equipment that must be brought to the site (for team members).
    For key stakeholders, we also provide the
    • Requested involvement of the stakeholder in supporting the event (e.g., provide advice during the event, attend the post-event meeting);
    • Significance of the stakeholder's involvement for the success of the event; and
    • Name of a contact person from whom additional information can be obtained and to whom ideas may be offered.
    We also post in the workplace where the event will be held, a Kaizen Pre-Event Flyer. This flyer informs performers of the target work process about the event and invites their ideas about what improvements the event should make. It must be sent to the workplace no later than two weeks prior to the event and posted in a place where performers are likely to see it.


    Push to Resolve Delays

    Do not tolerate wait states. If people are not available and you are not getting callback or information is not flowing—don't wait, act! First, try to work through the barriers to progress with the people directly. If this fails or if the barriers they are experiencing are not within their control, escalate the issue up to the event's sponsor. Remember, people are expecting you to deliver an event and, as a professional, it is your responsibility not to disappoint them.

    Some wait states are due to missing business information (e.g., cycle time, unit cost, average labor rates, average defect rates). We continue to be amazed by the extent to which basic business information may be missing or held out of the reach of local managers. When this information is missing, we use "work arounds" to speed the process. For example, if labor cost for a work process is not available, we may estimate it based on the total operating cost for the work process and the type of industry the business is in. (Different industries have different profiles of cost with respect to its labor and non-labor components.) Other suggestions for working around missing information are provided in Kaizen Desk Reference Standard.


    Repeat What Works

    When you return to a business to do a follow-on Kaizen event, remember what worked previously. Request the people who effectively coordinated that last event as your contacts for the follow-on event. They will need much less set-up time to do their roles. Re-use the elements of scope information that have not changed (e.g., the basic business information). Move from an "uncover, compile, and check" strategy to a "draft and check" approach, leveraging your knowledge and the relationships you have establish. For example, if you are improving the same work process, leverage your learning about it to rapidly draft the scope document. Be certain, however, that you confirm every bit of information you propose. Also, leverage your learning about where to hold the event and what sources to use to meet logistical needs.


    Don't Jettison Your Process

    One solution you should not take to speeding preparation is to succumb to pressure and jettison your preparation process. Not infrequently, a business will attempt to resolve the problem of its people or business information not being available by arguing that you really do not need to speak with them or to have the information you seek. They will say that the problem that the team must fix is straightforward, the work process is simple, and everyone is ready to support the effort. Here we leverage our work standard for doing Kaizen (Kaizen Desk Reference Standard) to ensure our success. We remind the business that conducting an event that will reliably produce its intended results requires the same discipline and adherence to a standard as producing any product right the first time. We advise you to do the same. Stick to your process. The knowledge embedded within it and your commitment to put it in the service of people define you as a professional. If you give in to pressure, you surrender your expertise and, with it, the opportunity to benefit the business.


    Shorten Execution

    Exhibit 4 depicts the key tasks in our Kaizen event process. They are: Focus the Kaizen event, Evaluate the target work process, Solve the performance issue, and Act to improve the target work process.

    In the first task, Focus the Kaizen Event, the team’s job is to build a direction for the event based on the facts in the workplace. We build our “fact base” by describing the target work process and doing a walk through of the process. With the information we gather, we redefine the mission, goals, and do’s and don’ts of the event, reconciling the new direction with that we inherited from the scope document we prepare prior to the event. Even before we begin focusing the event, we spend a time ensuring that team members know each other and understand the purpose of the event and how Kaizen is accomplished. We build ground rules for working together and make sure that everyone feels comfortable with what we are doing and how we will get it done.
    To accelerate the Kaizen event's execution, externalize the setup that takes place within this first task of the event. Transfer certain activities to the preparation process. Using this approach, we have completed Kaizen events within three and a half days for a first-time event within a workplace and three days for follow-on events. The key elements to externalize are preparing the people who will participate in the event, building the work process description, and completing the work process walk through.


    Conduct a Pre-Event Workshop

    Kaizen succeeds or fails based on how well you energize and engage the people who must make it happen and must follow through to ensure that the benefits it generates sustain. People participating in the event need to know about Kaizen and what it can offer both in terms of business results and expanded opportunities to make a difference in the workplace. They need to understand the concept of waste and be skilled in detecting it, and they should have the Working With Others skills.1 These skills enable people to share information and ideas efficiently and build better solutions together.

    We conduct a one-day pre-event workshop to accomplish these purposes. Be sure to schedule the workshop for the week before the Kaizen event so that the preparation work is fresh in the team members’ minds.

    During the day, we meet with the key stakeholders, the performers of the target work process, and the proposed team. We break the session into two parts. In the first part, we include all participants and use it to introduce the purpose of the proposed event, educate about Kaizen and how it is executed, and solicit feedback and ideas on how to make the event a success.

    We include only the Kaizen team in the second part of the session. We use this session to begin building the teamwork needed for the event and to sustain continuous improvements after it is done. We begin this meeting with teaching an abridged version of Working With Others (WWO) skills. These enable people to understand the ideas and information others are sharing and express their own ideas in ways that keep group members connected and moving toward their common goal. The Working With Others skills are clarifying and confirming, which help you build an accurate picture of what another person is sharing; and constructive criticism and hitchhiking, which allow you to add your ideas in a way that builds better solutions while maintaining positive relationships. We weave into the learning process activities that apply the skills and advance team building. For example, team members use the skills to learn about each other's expectations for the event, to probe the explore purpose of the event, and to develop further their understanding of Kaizen. Later, we have team members use these skills to confirm the draft work process description (see next section) and educate themselves about the concept of waste and how to detect it. The WWO skills eliminate the waste of correcting misunderstandings and wandering from the main topic being discussed. The skills add value by giving people a means to express their ideas constructively and efficiently thereby accelerating the team's progress.


    Build the Work Process Description Before the Event

    Even before we conduct our pre-event workshop, we build a map of the target work process. Mapping the work process supplies the Kaizen team with a common understanding of the work it will measure and improve. Almost always, the mapping activity uncovers and resolves inconsistencies among the team members in how they understand the target work process. It also provides the first opportunity to uncover waste in the process and it gives information needed to plan the team's walk through of the process.

    To accelerate focusing the Kaizen event, do a draft of the work process description prior to the event, getting the information from the work standards and from interviews with at least two people knowledgeable of the target work process. One person should be the manager of the target work process; the second should be a performer of the work process. Collect information through telephone conversations, e-mail, or face-to-face conversations when practical. Draft the description and send it to the interviewees for confirmation or adjustment. We use a standard format (see Kaizen Desk Reference Standard, pages 212-213) that captures an overview of the process, a detailed map of it, and key information about each process component.

    Bring the draft map to the pre-event workshop for the team to review and polish. Even if you do not complete a pre-event workshop, doing the map prior to the first day of the event still allows you to speed your execution since you save time building the map during the event itself. You only need to review with the team.


    Do the Walk Through as Part of the Workshop

    As part of the pre-event workshop, we teach members about the concept of waste and build their skill in detecting waste in a work process. We solidify the team's learning by completing some components of the walk through of the target work process as part of the pre-event workshop. The components we include are preparing people to observe the work process, executing the walk through itself, and recording and classifying the waste the teamed observes. We leave processing the results of the work through for the event itself since this activity immediately triggers the remaining Kaizen activities (i.e., building the event's final mission and goals, evaluating the target work process, solving the performance issue, and acting to improve the target work process).


    Reap the Benefits

    By mapping the target work process before the event and conducting the one-day pre-event orientation session, you can begin the first day of the Kaizen event with summarizing the results of the walk through and, using these findings to finish focusing the event (defining its final mission, goals, and do's and don'ts). With the focus set, you can prepare for evaluating the target work process (measuring the amounts of waste within it) at the end of Day 1 and execute the evaluation at the beginning of Day 2. Solving the performance problems you uncover can begin in the afternoon of the second day and finish early on the morning of Day 3. The team will immediately make the improvements it devises. It will need to limit the scope of the actions it implements within the event so that Day 4 can be used to conduct the close-out meeting with the team and prepare team members to communicate the results of the event to stakeholders. Improvements that cannot be executed on Day 3 are placed on the event's follow through plan for action after the event.

    1 These skills are delineated in J.S. Byron and P.V. Bierley, Working With Others (Hope, ME: Lowrey Press, 2003).

    Published April 2004


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