Kaizen's Role in Building the High-Performing
Organization - Raphael L. Vitalo, Ph.D.
What Is Kaizen?
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.
Small Changes Can Have Big Effects
By definition, Kaizen pursues small changes that progressively move toward
perfection. But the incremental nature of its improvements relates to work process
change. When a Kaizen event is conducted according to our method (Vitalo, R.L.;
Butz, F.; and Vitalo, J.P. Kaizen
Desk Reference Standard. St. Louis, MO: Lowrey Press, 2003), it has
another level of impact which is not necessarily incremental.
Kaizen attracts and develops people who are capable of creating and sustaining
high performance. By its nature, it draws to it people who are achievers at
heartpeople who are internally driven to make a difference, to perfect
something. These people are focused on their work, frustrated by waste, and
delighted by the opportunity to improve what they are about so that it excels.
Their pursuit of excellence is only excited more with each step toward its achievement.
Equally important, Kaizen attracts people who also are inclusive in their thinking
and doing. Kaizen, as we implement it, demands a broad view of the connection
of an activity to all activities that surround it and so, in its fact-finding
steps, it describes the context within which the target work process operates.
It also constructs its teams to include people who speak from the different
perspectives that populate the workplace, and it pursues its solutions with
openness to every voice. People who find Kaizen a gratifying experience are
not only pioneering in their attitudes but also inclusive in their disposition.
The kinds of people that Kaizen attracts and develops are the heart and soul
of high-performing organizations. The broad and sustained application of Kaizen
can lead to a rapid emergence of the central element needed for a company to
become high performing.
In 1997, Vital Enterprises embarked on an extensive research effort to summarize
the literature on what was thought to differentiate the very best commercial
enterprises from all others (Vitalo, 1997). Our first task was to formulate
a definition of such high-performing organizations. Our second task was to develop
an understanding of the formative factors that create and sustain such an enterprise.
High-Performing Organization Defined
We distilled this literature and augmented it with both outcome research from
allied areas such as psychology and management sciences and our own experience.
From this effort, we anchored our definition of a high-performing organization
(HPO) in its ability to produce extraordinary results for all stakeholders (i.e.,
customers, shareholders, employees, communities, and suppliers). We developed
the definition further by elaborating what "extraordinary results" meant. HPOs
are the vital few companies that account for most of the change that occurs
in each industry, market, and region. Their extraordinary results extend beyond
customer service and shareholders gain. HPOs are said to fulfill societal and
industry ideals by becoming agents and models of constructive innovation and
by being places where people can learn, achieve, and grow. Although these companies
produce extraordinary results, they do not necessarily have unbroken records
of success. Indeed, HPOs may experience setbacks at different points in their
history. What HPOs do consistently display is the ability to sustain performance
over time and over changing market circumstances. Their record
of achievement has a positive slope over decades. And, even more significantly,
they produce benefits for all stakeholders inclusivelynot for the
benefit of management at the expense of employees and shareholders, or for employees
and shareholders at the expense of suppliers and the community.
Our research identified one source for the success of HPOs and three principles
that govern its operation.
People make the difference in any enterprise, and they alone determine whether
an HPO exists or fails to exist. The right people, therefore, are the single
source for achieving all the esteemed benefits produced by an HPO. They are
the heart, head, and sinew of such companies. It is from their substance that
all other elements of an HPO emerge.
The right people have these qualities: (1) they align to a purpose larger
than self-interest, (2) they are teamed in their performance, (3) they are
energized from within, (4) they have or acquire whatever expertise their tasks
demand, and (5) they are always pioneering. People who create and sustain
HPOs align to a business intent that commits to commerce through excellence
and to producing benefits for all stakeholders inclusively. They team
with the other members of the business they implement as well as across the
company. Their inner desire to produce excellence energizes their performance.
Their first step in every endeavor is to acquire the knowledge and proficiency
needed to execute their tasks. Throughout, they are pioneering, driving to
achieve the previously unachievable, to probe new opportunities, and to create
new benchmarks of accomplishment.
The enlightening yet disturbing implication of this single source of effect
is that you cannot change your company without changing its people.
The three principles that explain the performance of an HPO describe its
relationship with the people who power it, clarify what these people focus
on, and explain how they view the rest of what surrounds them.
Principle 1 asserts that the right people are the origin and end of
the HPO. This means that aligned, teamed, energized, capable, and pioneering
people create HPOs, and that, reciprocally, HPOs attract, nurture, and develop
these people. The relationship is circular and self-sustaining. An HPO never
acts in a way that compromises this relationship.
Principle 2 states that enterprise and learning are the only activities
on which people in an HPO focus. Their single imperative is to maximize
enterprise through learning.
Principle 3 declares that all elements other than people are optional.
If these elements exist, it is on a "just-in-time" and "only-for-so-long-as-useful"
basis. This paraphernalia includes structure, strategy, systems, procedures,
equipment, tools, and facilities.
The Role of Kaizen in Creating
a High-Performing Organization
The methodology of Kaizen described in Kaizen Desk Reference Standard
encourages the development of the right people, the right focus, and the right
attitude toward all else.
The Right People
Kaizen is a teamed activity that aligns performers to a larger purpose of advancing
business success and benefiting all stakeholders. It attracts people energized
by the opportunity to make a difference and equips them with knowledge and skills
that empower them to realize that opportunity. Further, it encourages performers
to challenge the usual way of performing work and to devise better methods that
enhance the value of work from the perspective of the customer. Every one of
its features draws to it the kind of people who are the single source of effect
in creating and sustaining the HPO's extraordinary results. Kaizen provides
these people an opportunity to exercise their qualities and grow in their capability,
involvement, and contribution. If allowed its full impact, the broad application
of Kaizen acts to nourish the seeds of an HPO's creation and propagate them
throughout the workplace.
The Right Focus
Each Kaizen event roots its direction in producing business benefits and uses
learning as its means of achieving those benefits. Its very substance emphasizes
a focus on enterprise and learning. Moreover, its leave-behind measure and the
follow-up team meetings it fosters sustain and enhance the presence of the right
focus in each workplace it enters.
The Right Perspective
Kaizen continuously challenges people to question the value of each element
in a work process. It raises the question of necessity for every action and
every resource. In this way it eliminates "sacred cows" and reinforces the third
principle of an HPO, that all elements other than high-performing people
are optional. From a Kaizen perspective, each element in the workplace either
adds value as defined by the customer or it is waste. There are no products
or product features that must exist, or production or delivery methods
that must be used, or paraphernalia of any sort that must be present.
Similarly, there are no roles, structures, or divisions of responsibility that
Kaizen, then, can be a means to the strategic business goal of becoming an
HPO. Each event, when completed as described in the Kaizen Desk Reference
Standard, is itself a mini-HPO in that it is "governed by purpose and
powered by teamed, capable people who use learning to achieve extraordinary
results for all stakeholders." A stream of events with a company wide scope
can be used to model and teach the principles of an HPO and attract, develop,
and elevate the contribution of the kind of people needed to power one.
What Kaizen Cannot Do
Kaizen is a tool, a technology. When performed according to the Kaizen Desk
Reference Standard, every element of it is consistent with the model of
an HPO and, as just stated, each event is itself a mini-HPO. But Kaizen as a
technology is fundamentally paraphernalia. As such, its utility depends on the
people who champion and apply it. This is the implication of the HPO model that
most authors miss. Most consultants seem to believe it is possible to build
an HPO by establishing its paraphernalia (e.g., Bettinger, 1989; Maira and Scott-Morgan,
1995; Neal, Tromley, Lopez, and Russell, 1995). They seem to think that if we
build the artifacts, then the artifact builders will appear. In essence, these
authors propose to use external conditions to shape the right people into being.
This is self-contradictory. The right people are intrinsically motivatednot
externally driven. Further, there is no evidence that values can be embedded
in peoplecertainly not in adults. People must embrace them. We can assist
each other in the process of developing the right stuff, but we cannot command
it. We may model values and encourage their incorporation, but, ultimately,
the act of incorporating values is a matter of personal choice. Some people
will experience the personal qualities encouraged by Kaizen as meaningful to
them and worth their investment and sacrifice; others will not. And that is
The bottom line is that Kaizen can help you uncover the right people in your
organization and can help encourage and develop those people, but it will not
transform the wrong people into the right people. Further, if the "wrong" people
are at the top of your organization, Kaizen will never be allowed to have its
full impact, and your business will not become an HPO.
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Published April 2004
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