Planning a Continuous Improvement Event

Kaizen events have proven to be effective in generating improvements in all kinds of organizations. Advance planning will make them even more effective.

In our efforts to improve our businesses, many of us have undertaken Kaizen events. Kaizen is a Japanese word that means “good change,” and the Kaizen philosophy is one that embraces short-duration improvement activities that are done on a regular basis. Kaizen events should have a place in every company’s continuous improvement toolbox.

To increase the likelihood that meaningful improvements will be achieved, however, Kaizen events require preparation. Simply walking 
into an area with the edict, “Make it better,” will probably not deliver expected results, especially at first.

Planning is actually the first step in the Kaizen event cycle, followed by the event itself and then any follow-up activity that may be warranted. Although the very nature of a Kaizen event stresses introducing change quickly, some follow-up activities related to training, documentation, making temporary things permanent and monitoring progress are commonly necessary.

There are things that should be considered when planning a Kaizen event, and here I offer the ones I believe you will find to be most useful.

1. Vision of what you want to achieve. Without a vision of an ideal outcome, it will be difficult to know if you have been successful. This vision need not be complex. Perhaps it’s a reduction in space needed in a work center or an increase in the yield rate of a process or even an increase in some measure of productivity. Whatever the vision is, it is the purpose of the Kaizen event.

2. Clear understanding of the area of focus. It is essential that everyone understand where the work is to be done to avoid the dreaded “mission creep,” or expansion beyond the original goals. If a Kaizen event, such as setup reduction, is to be done on a specific machine, this must be specified up-front as the sole area of focus.

3. Team leader. Although a team leader is often a member of management, this does not have to be the case. Anyone with an understanding of the area of focus and of the Kaizen process can be an effective team leader. Such a leader should facilitate the Kaizen event rather than dominate it. Ultimately, the most rewarding Kaizen events are those with total team participation from people who are trying to make a difference.

4. A team. The team should consist of people familiar with the area of focus as well as “outsiders.” The reason for including process-knowledgeable people is obvious, but outsiders can serve the valuable role of asking questions nobody else might think to ask. Not being mired in details of the process enables outsiders to introduce new perspectives that help the team.

All members of a Kaizen event team should have a basic knowledge of “the eight wastes” (defects, overproduction, waiting, non-value-added (over) processing, excess transportation, inventory, excess motion and underutilized employees) so they can recognize these wastes if and when they are encountered during the Kaizen event. 

5. Performance measures. The team needs to know if it has been successful in achieving its goals, so appropriate measures need to be selected up-front. Measures can vary from high-level ones such as on-time shipments and lead-time reduction, to the easily grasped time saved per hour or pieces scrapped per day.]

6. Communication of the Kaizen event to all affected employees. Even if some of these people cannot actively participate in the Kaizen event, they should be made aware that the event is coming up. This can provide an opportunity to ask questions or offer advice, as well as alert everyone to probable delays in operations while the Kaizen event is underway.

7. Availability of a camera. Too often people say they wish they had a photo of an area before a change was made (in fact, I have never heard anyone say they were sorry they took a picture of a “before improvement” condition). Affected people may forget problems or issues they faced before an improvement was introduced. Before and after photos are a powerful means of communicating any improvements. Likewise, some type of “storyboard” can be an effective way of sharing the overall improvement process.

8. List of other resources that may be required during the event. These resource people should be contacted ahead of time so arrangements can be made in case they are needed at various times during the event.

9. A timeline for the event. This timeline need not define each and every activity down to the minute, but a rough timeline can keep the team focused on the task at hand and increase the likelihood that the event will finish when it is expected to.

Kaizen events have proven to be an effective means for generating improvements in organizations of all types. Advance planning of any Kaizen event will make it even more effective.