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Implementing Kaizen: How Late Should Kaizen Teams Work?

Great Lean practitioners and change agents know the same thing about implementing kaizen that a carpenter does about his trade. You have to use the right tool for the right job. When building cabinets, a woodworker relies on tools other than his hammer.

Lean companies should look to tools other than the week-long kaizen project when implementing Lean. Unfortunately, for many people, 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; some will need less. It follows that a single tool won’t be right for every situation.

In truth, the term kaizen doesn’t just refer to week-long projects. It also means the practice of making a change for the better. Week-long projects are one way of implementing kaizen. On the spot improvements, or individual projects are others. Perhaps a work area is chronically messy. Simply marking a location and placing a trash can in the area is kaizen.

Week-long kaizen events, though, are popular because they create big gains in a short time. They also are outstanding educational tools and are great for building up improvement networks. Employees meet people who can help with later improvement efforts—tooling people, engineers, programmers, maintenance workers, and the like.

So what’s the problem? When a company ignores other methods, and only uses week long kaizen weeks, 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 a single parent are commonplace. It can be challenging for them to put in long hours. Other employees might avoid project 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 don’t 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 when implementing kaizen creates a division in a company of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’: those that have participated in kaizen weeks and everyone else.

This division doesn’t take into account whether or not the worker supports Lean 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 among workers and between employees and managers, making Lean harder than it needs to be.

A better way is to approach implementing 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. Commitment increases the success of your Lean efforts.

Second, company leadership won’t 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.


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