Kaizen Events: When and How to Use Them

Darren Dolcemascolo; Jonathan Trout, Noria Corporation

Kaizen Events: When and How to Use Them

Kaizen events are traditionally short-term brainstorming and implementation sessions intended to improve an existing process. Employees, managers and even C-level owners get together to map out existing processes, discuss ways these processes can be improved and determine action items within the scope of the operators.  

Kaizen events are typically touted as one-time events but should be part of a program designed for continuous improvement to see if the implemented changes are working. Below we’ll discuss when and how to use kaizen events, as well as go through the steps to leading a successful one. 

When to Use Kaizen Events

The question of when to use Kaizen can be broken down into two categories: short-term (daily) use and long-term use. Continuous process improvement should always be at the forefront of actions at work, especially in regard to sustaining improvements that have already been implemented. This is where short-term or daily Kaizen events come in to play. You may have heard of the term "Kaizen culture" within a company. This refers to employees always making continuous improvement part of their job.

Some changes require a more long-term and focused approach. A properly executed Kaizen event requires a significant investment in employee time. Kaizen events are focused three- to five-day breakthrough events focusing on a targeted problem in a process. Long-term Kaizen events include the following activities:

  • Training
  • Defining the problem/goals
  • Documenting the current state
  • Brainstorming and developing a future state
  • Implementation
  • Developing a follow-up plan
  • Presenting results
  • Celebrating successes

Not all problems need a short- or long-term Kaizen event but there are some circumstances where they are the best tool for eliminating waste and improving customer satisfaction. So, when should you invest your employee's and your organization's time in a Kaizen event?

  • When an urgent problem needs a quick fix: we mentioned "firefighting" earlier. This would fall under that category. Urgent problems may present themselves in the form of an uptick in defected products being produced, a big increase in customer complaints or a failed inspection.

  • When you want to hit targeted goals: maybe your team has been slow to hit strategic goals or KPIs and you want to hit that issue head-on. A Kaizen event may help you achieve a strong push towards achieving those goals through documenting and comparing your current processes to a new one.

  • When you have ineffective daily improvements: Kaizen events may help your team get unstuck in their daily processes. Getting your team into daily Kaizen events and in the "Kaizen culture" mindset gets them involved in the process by asking them to make changes for the better in their daily routines, leading to incremental changes over time. This shows them they have a direct impact on how things are done and that they have a bigger stake in the company than they may realize, leading to more satisfied employees.

  • When you're working with other teams: one of the biggest areas of dysfunction in an organization is cross-functional collaboration; working with other departments. This is because every department has its own priorities and leadership. A Kaizen event gives two departments a structured environment to put their heads together and figure out how to work together towards a common goal. For example, the shipping and receiving team being on the same page as the production team is vital to an efficient process.

  • When you haven't done one in a while: it may sound like common sense, but most people hold a Kaizen event and never do it again. Kaizen is all about continuous improvement, so it's important to do them regularly to keep problem-solving and collaboration skills sharp through continuously honing processes. It's also best to do a Kaizen event when new team members are introduced to your department. Not only is it an opportunity to introduce them to continuous improvement tools and techniques, but they might also have ideas to contribute to the event.

How to Use Kaizen Events

There is no single right way to implement a Kaizen event. Many tools and techniques can be used that work best for your team; however, most events usually revolve around an action plan and a philosophy. Kaizen as an action plan means organizing a focused event that strives to improve a specific area within the organization.

Kaizen as a philosophy takes us back to that "Kaizen culture" we discussed earlier. Actively engaged employees who are continuously suggesting and implementing new ideas and improvements.

So, how do you know where to start? Kaizen events are often planned using value stream mapping to target the right areas for improvement. What follows is a list of some of the problems that can be solved using kaizen events:

  • Decreasing changeover time on a piece of equipment or process. Using kaizen, a team can improve upon the time to change over equipment using the SMED system, developed by Shigeo Shingo.

  • Organizing the workplace using 5-S.

  • Creating a one-piece-flow work cell.

  • Developing a pull system.

  • Improving equipment reliability through TPM (Total Productive Maintenance).

  • Improving the manufacturability of a product design.

  • Improving a product development process.

  • Improving other administrative processes such as order processing, procurement, engineering change processing and other paperwork/information processing activities.

Now that we know where to start, what does it look like to actually implement Kaizen in a real-world scenario?

  • Get individuals involved: each Monday ask your employees to take a look around their own team and come up with some problems they've run into the previous week. Ask them to consider one way to resolve these issues. Have them submit their findings to a Kaizen committee to brainstorm other ideas to solve the problem or elaborate on the suggested idea.

    Another way to get everyone involved is through the use of a Kaizen board. Place a whiteboard with sticky notes under categories labeled "To Do," "Doing," "Done," and "Ideas" in a central area or share an online document that allows team members to collaborate and spitball ideas.

  • Form a Kaizen committee: this should include anywhere from five to 10 employees from various levels within the organization. The committee should meet weekly to discuss ideas for continuous improvement.

  • Report changes: no Kaizen event is complete without a report. A Kaizen report should summarize how things were before action is taken and what happened when you took the action, most notably how the problem in question became better.

How to Lead a Kaizen Event

If you have been given the task of leading a kaizen event, here are 45 steps to take you from start to finish.

  1. Have gifts for team members bundled with the name tag attached ready to hand out.

  2. Make the opening a welcome to remember.

  3. Have event documentation team ready to capture action.

  4. Take pictures of team members and post them in the main gathering area with their names.

  5. Have the names of event support staff and pictures displayed with contact information.

  6. Have a contact number (outside of the event staff) so that teams can be contacted; leave a roster with the switchboard of names of people in the event.

  7. Make the comfort stations workable for the team rooms – coffee, water, soda, snacks.

  8. Keep supply request lists available – regular supply runs.

  9. Have members bring their favorite pencil, clipboard, stopwatch.

  10. Have a video camera and/or digital camera available for each team, with instructions for running each clearly identified.

  11. Assign a host non-team member for each group: questions, regular check-ins, what-ifs.

  12. Leave one evening open – 12-hour days with the same people are long enough.

  13. Provide transportation options, company or cab/shuttle service.

  14. Start the event when all of the staff is in house; allow for some lag time with planes and trains and automobiles.

  15. Wireless Internet and printer access in work areas is a great help.

  16. Local color – see it through the eyes of your guests.

  17. Have the forms printed out, bundled by day and the report-out books indexed with tabs ready.

  18. Set the shell of the file that you want each team to use at the ready.

  19. Add the “rules in use” to the top of observation forms.

  20. Make a point of names and dates on each and every form.

  21. Make rulers, tape measures, tape, post-its, easel boards a part of report-out stock kits.

  22. Post in the host facility a notice explaining the event.

  23. Keep the facility employees in the loop.

  24. Send out the forms in an e-mail ahead of time – visual identification tools and study guide

  25. Post locations of first-aid kits, aspirin, tweezers, Band-Aids, etc., or stock them in the work rooms.

  26. Lunch with non-event members adds local flavor and communicates the event.

  27. Non-event members could be observers, half-day or more; this provides lean exposure.

  28. Keep teams on time – report-outs are scheduled, start when they are scheduled, do not allow stragglers .

  29. Make plug-in coolers available; check with local vending companies, stock may be maintained by them.

  30. Is language a communication challenge? Learn a welcoming phrase prior to the event and perhaps some background about the other locations.

  31. Provide team rosters, including location and title, to all participants.

  32. Binder supplies to contain all of the work papers that are completed.

  33. Schedule extra trash cans and janitorial services more frequently.

  34. Remind teams to practice 5-S in their work rooms – lead by example.

  35. Teams need to ask for resources not visible.

  36. Meeting host employees with the same job function outside of lean might lead to improved communication across the company.

  37. Arrange downtime at least once a day to check in with home facility. 

  38. Post progress for host employees to visit (pictures before and after).

  39. Clear the host facility team members’ responsibilities for the week; they are unavailable for the routine day events.

  40. Build your report-out books every day. Have the tabs with labels, index and clear sheets ready to fill at the end of each day. Make it part of the daily report-out.

  41. If using a network for computer storage, publish locations and identify what each team needs to add daily.

  42. Team members contribute to final presentation; document instructions and give examples of information that is necessary.

  43. Try to balance experience levels (both technical and organizational) across teams

  44. Use one sensei (consultant) for each changeover team; having their support and leadership will aid in direction and flow.

  45. People with prior exposure to Kaizen forms need to step forward and lead in documentation completion.

Bottom Line

Kaizen events, however, cannot solve any problem within an organization. There are certain types of improvements for which other methods should be used.

Process improvements (such as Six Sigma-type analysis) aimed at yield improvement and variation/scrap reduction are key examples.

Suppose that a particular process has a first-pass yield of only 85 percent when it would need to be much closer to 100 percent to run in a one-piece-flow environment.

If the process must be analyzed using experiments and statistical methods, it would make sense to utilize a team but not a kaizen event. To implement these types of improvements, a problem-solving team (or a Six Sigma team) that meets regularly over a period of time works better than a kaizen team meeting for five consecutive days.

In order to use kaizen events effectively, it is important to understand the types of problems for which kaizen events should and should not be used. With proper planning, kaizen events can bring breakthrough improvement to an organization on its lean journey.

About the author:

Darren Dolcemascolo is an internationally recognized lecturer, author and consultant. As senior partner and co-founder of EMS Consulting Group, he specializes in productivity and quality improvement through lean manufacturing. To learn more visit www.emsstrategies.com.

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