Kaizen is Always Individual

Last spring, Dr Balle the Gemba Coach at the Lean Enterprise Institute and I had a conversation on Kaizen which resulted in an 8-week series of videos and a podcast. This is a 34 page transcription of the discussion. I think you will find it entertaining and will provide a different way of viewing continuous improvement and Kaizen.

An excerpt from the transcription:

Joe: Michael, when you talk about Kaizen, you talk about Kaizen on an individual basis. Can you explain that?

Michael Balle:  Absolutely. Kaizen is always individual. There’s a difference in perspective, and we’re very biased by our Taylorist pasts. Our understanding we usually have is that performance is the result of processes. We all buy that, and its fine. Our thinking is that if you hit each of these processes with an improvement project, and people call it Kaizen but it’s not, then the results should be improved performance.

Evidence over the past 20 years has shown that this is not the case. What you do have is quick hits. You can have some savings, or you have some low?hanging fruit, but you don’t have the improvement we’re looking for.

The other way of looking at this is that any process is just a collection of individuals. If each individual is better at their job, then collectively they will come up with a process that performs better and delivers in performance. I think this is the key to understanding. Kaizen is an individual activity to make you better at your job. This is something we see with Lean students.

After studying Lean for a while, you ask them the question, “Do you feel you’re mastering Lean better?” and they say, “Well, no. The system, it seems still as mysterious and deep and hard to master.” You ask them the second question, “Are you better at your jobs? Do you feel you’re better at your jobs?” They say, “No debate, Absolutely, yes.” They’re confident that they’re a lot better at their jobs. This is what Kaizen is about.

Kaizen is about improving you, Joe. By doing Kaizen, you will improve how you see your job and how you perform at your job. This will make you stop making some classic mistakes, for this will also make you discover innovative ways of doing your job.

As we all pull together with a deeper understanding of our jobs, we create processes that our competitors can never touch. In order to hold those better processes, each of us has to be better at our jobs.

Dr. Balle went on to say:

Really, the essence of Kaizen is building people an understanding, a vision, of the waste their technical choices imposes on the work chain. It is an individual thing as it is their technical choices and it is a collective thing as it’s not the waste they impose on themselves but the waste they impose on their suppliers, the waste they impose on their internal customers.

This conversation was one of the reasons I delayed publishing the Lean Engagement Team and more specifically the chapter on the iCustomer and iTeam. It did not change my thinking of teamwork and individual responsibility but it did re-frame the way I viewed and described those two subjects.
The Kaizen Series
Dr. Balle Friday Video Series
Audio Collection of Dr. Balle on Kaizen

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