The Lean Kaizen Event – How Long Should Continuous Improvement Teams Work?

Great Lean Six Sigma practitioners and change agents know the same thing a carpenter does. You have to use the right tool for the right job. When building cabinets, a woodworker rests on tools OTHER than his hammer. One Lean tool that is OFTEN overused is the week long kaizen.

For many people the Lean term, kaizen , has become synonymous with five day improvement event. These projects may also be known as Kaizen Blitzes, Rapid Improvement Workshops, or something similar.

Common sense dictates that there will also be some projects that need more than a week to resolve, and some that need less. In fact, the term k aizen does not just refer to week-long projects . It also means the practice of just making an on the spot improvement. Sometimes a work area is chronically messy. Simply marking a location and placing a trash can in the area is kaizen .

Week-long Kaizen events create big gains for a company. They also are outstanding educational tools. Employees meet people who can help with later improvement efforts such as tooling people, programmers, maintenance workers, and the like.

Kaizen weeks play an important role in process improvement, but when a company ignores other methods, and only uses week long kaizens , the importance of these projects to Lean success becomes exaggerated. As a result, the project sponsor, or Lean champion, tends to push for huge gains. These expectations greatly exceed what can be done in a 40 hour work week, often leading to long nights.
Is there anything wrong with working late like that? For some people, the answer is no. When a project is clicking, and you are moving machines around late at night, the time flies by. For other people, though, it can be a problem.

If the people in a company equate kaizen to a hardship, they will not want to participate.

In the modern world, families with two working parents or single parents are commonplace. It can be challenging for either to make the commitment to put in long hours. Other employees may avoid teams because they have personal commitments like evening classes, coaching baseball teams, or the like. Some workers will just not want to stay late. Even those that do not mind staying late on occasion will get tired of it after having to do several projects in a four or five month period.

So, the strategy of only using week-long projects creates a division in a company of haves and have-nots. Those that have participated in kaizen weeks and everyone else. This division does not take into account whether or not the employee supports Lean enterprise efforts. An employee with schedule conflicts may be lumped together with workers who have been avoiding project weeks because they are resisting change. All of this can create conflict between workers and between employees and managers-making Lean harder than it needs to be.

A better way is to approach kaizen weeks is to use them as one facet of a broad continuous improvement effort. If you shift your focus to daily improvements instead, two things happen. First, if an improvement affects the team on a personal level, more employees will be motivated to get involved. Involvement leads to commitment. Commit increases the success of your Lean efforts. Second, company leadership will not feel the same degree of pressure on every project, so the chance of an improvement workshop week running until all hours becomes more of an exception rather than a rule.

Reach for daily improvements first in your Lean tool box to maximize the success of your Lean efforts.

© 2009 Velaction Continuous Improvement, LLC