Why Kaizen Fails (And The Secrets To Its Success)

Its true – the majority of attempts to apply kaizen, the Japanese management concept of continuous improvement, fail, and fail miserably.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that kaizen itself fails. In fact I’m a big fan and promoter of kaizen having written a book on the subject and numerous articles. I even called my consulting firm Complete Kaizen in order to further promote and train managers in how to use this fascinating tool for business success.

What I am saying however is that the way kaizen, or lean as it is more commonly and sometimes incorrectly referred to, is applied is often the cause for failure. This article will hopefully show you what true kaizen is and how to avoid failure in future applications.

For a start kaizen has been described as a “state of mind.” No, not by me but by kaizen guru Masaaki Imai, the man responsible for bringing kaizen to western attention in the late 1980’s following the publication of his book by the same name.

Unfortunately many of us see it only from an operational point of view. A point of view that is very superficial. Kaizen is first and for most about cultural change and unless that happens any attempt to apply the many tools and techniques that have accumulated under its umbrella will fail.

Kaizen requires us to firstly stop thinking in short-term, goal orientated ways. To be fully effective in delivering sustainable benefits we need to switch our attention to the long-term goals of the company. Thats were the cultural change comes in and what needs to happen right at the start of our kaizen campaigns but sadly doesn’t in many cases. An example of this is when you talk to companies who failed in their attempts only to hear them proclaim that “We tried that a few years ago but it doesn’t work in our environment.” That’s just plain crap!

Get Organized

Step one to ensure a cultural shift that focuses on long-term growth and stability is to organise our immediate work areas to promote efficiency and productivity in all we do. The best way to do this is to apply the 5S tool.

The name 5S comes from five words each beginning with the letter ‘S.’ Originally these were Japanese words (no surprises there) but can be translated into English as:

  • Sort
  • Straighten
  • Shine
  • Standardise
  • Sustain

Each ‘S’ is a step that helps you create an efficient working environment. All items in the immediate vicinity are the essential items, those needed on a daily basis. Less used items of equipment are stored away, out of sight.

Another aspect of 5S deals with visual management. Walkways are clearly marked out on the floor. Work areas are clearly divided and storage areas are kept orderly and visually marked according to contents.

5S has shown to improve the physical surroundings and improve the overall efficiency of a department as well as the safety aspects, staff morale, quality and productivity and creates a much more professional look and feel about the place.

Create A “Can Do” Mindset

Secondly we must develop within our workforce a “can do” mentality. We must motivate them and make them feel apart of the solution and long-term success of the business. Involving them in activities like the 5S campaign mentioned above is a great start in generating dynamic teams as is the application of suggestion systems.

I know when I say suggestion systems many of you will be groaning. You’ve tried it before right? But in what context was it applied? Was it tried because it was the latest fashionable thing to do? Or was part of an overall strategy as I am suggesting here?

Staff suggestion systems have proven themselves over many decades that when applied as part of a whole method they help increase staff commitment and lift morale. Try them in conjunction with 5S and see the difference.

Get It In Writing

Lastly, seek out the best way to do any job and make it the standard. Write it down so that it can be referred to and everyone can understand what is required of them in a particular job. In other words we standardize best practice.

Many people when they think of best practice think of benchmarking. Find the leader in your field and apply what they are doing to your operations. By doing so you will emulate their success. Right? Most definitely wrong.

Benchmarking is an old world technique that is out of date and sadly still popular. When benchmarking was developed the business world moved at a much slower pace. Today we cannot afford the time to research our competitors ways and develop our own implementation plans. All benchmarking will do is to make your company as good in a year or twos time as your competitors are today.

A better way is to use your staff as described above. They have all the expertise to better their jobs and create cutting edge improvements. Improvements even your competitors may not have thought of.

So finally if you want to implement kaizen, and I strongly urge you to, remember these three basic building blocks and you will find your attempts to apply this Japanese method will succeed both now and in the future.