Lean – The Fragility of Kaizen

Lean – “The Fragility of Kaizen”

For those of you who are not familiar with Toyota Motor Corp.’s lean management philosophy, the “kaizen” portion of it refers to seeking “constant improvement” at all costs, even if the resulting lean system is fragile and easily broken.

Kaizen/Constant improvement” is one of those phrases that sound absolutely wonderful and positive. Who could possibly object to it? Well, I hate to be such a cynic, but there’s no such thing as a management tool that is absolutely positive. You must be wary of the siren song of these promised panaceas.

So I would like to offer a counterbalancing management tool: knowing when to leave things the way they are.

Contrary to popular belief, constant improvement isn’t always a good thing. Here are some examples from an artistic perspective:

I published a play, which is performed all over the world, and for years I practiced “kaizen” with the script. I spent hundreds of hours seeking to improve it. But then one day, I realized that I had hit a wall. I had polished it so well that I could not improve it anymore. Every time I changed a line of dialogue, I was not making it any better. The new line was funny, but the old piece of tossed-out dialogue was funny as well. I had gotten caught up in a busy-work fantasy of “constant improvement.” I was not improving anything. I was just making it different. The improvement was an illusion. It was close enough. Time to do something else, like writing a whole new show and doubling my money.

I occasionally observed the issue of “constant improvement” in the world of orchestras. Classical musicians often get lost in the concept of “the more precise, the better.” I saw spectacular players driving themselves to exhaustion trying to add an extra 0.01% of improvement. The improvement, if there was any, was imperceptible to any objective listener. The intention was great, but the net result was just a loss of energy that could have been put to better use elsewhere.

If, as a manager, your top priority is “constant improvement,” this means you are focusing on what needs fixing more than what is already working just fine. There is a big danger here: It’s easy to take fabulous work for granted and not notice how hard everyone is already working to maintain a very high status quo. Failing to appreciate heroic effort that is already happening is the first step to a drop in quality. And it is oh so important to praise people for what they have been doing right up until now, before telling them what they are doing wrong.

There is always the danger, when you have a policy/expectation that they must institute “constant improvement,” that people will satisfy that requirement by going out and looking for things to change and improve, some of which perhaps do not need to be changed or improved. The classic example is the changed taste of Coke. What a disaster “New Coke” was. Another fairly obvious example, one that dogs me daily, is software upgrades in which favorite features are dropped, useless features are added, and the difficulty of operating the software increases.

There is a tremendous appeal to making changes, simply because there is more money to be made by making changes, far more money than can be made by leaving things the way they are. So there are always more advocates for change than there are for leaving things the way they are. But “constant improvement” should only apply to situations that need improving. The idea that it should be occurring constantly in all things is dogma, not strategy.

It’s certainly the job of a leader to recognize those areas that need improvement, and institute changes and upgrades where necessary. A far less glamorous job of a leader is to appreciate the things that are working perfectly well in their current state, and unless you have a genuinely better idea, to just leave them alone.


Posted in Automotive, Lean, Lean Manufacturing, Lean Six Sigma, Learning and Training, Manufacturing, Manufacturing Strategy Consulting and tagged , , .

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