I see the same cycle in so many places.

What cycle?

This one, more or less:

Step 1. Altruistic leaders sincerely (?) ask the associates for their improvement ideas (a.k.a. suggestions, kaizens, CI’s, etc.) in an attempt to foment some daily kaizen.

Step 2. Associates (not all of them), somewhat skeptically, call leadership’s bluff and submit their ideas.

Step 3. Leadership is pleased with the response (the number of ideas, that is) and then…panics. They determine that the quality of the ideas is uneven at best and they can’t effectively respond to and implement even a fraction of the ideas that have been submitted.

Step 4. The associates come to the realization that their ideas are on a one-way trip to kaizen’s version of the Roach Motel. You know, the Roach Motel, where ideas (or roaches) check in, but they don’t check out. The most jaded associates chide the ones who were gullible enough to think that their ideas mattered. Improvement ideas slow to a trickle.

Step 5. Leadership organizes a tiger team to make a dent in the huge inventory of ideas.

…and so on.

I don’t need to tell you that it doesn’t always end well.

How can we break this cycle?

Here are eight ways.

  • Build the right ecosystem. Kaizen, especially daily kaizen, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. An effective lean management system helps drive good standardize-do-check-adjust (SDCA) and plan-do-check-adjust (PDCA) thinking. It integrates solid visual controls, andon response, leader standard work, and regular team reflection meetings during which the team engages in, or at least initiates, problem-solving and then follows through. Of course, the ecosystem doesn’t work without solid lean leadership behaviors.
  • Teach and coach basic problem-solving capability. Good problem-solving skills aren’t necessarily innate. One of the most futile things is to launch a quick and easy kaizen system, suggestion system, etc. without any formal training. That’s when you get unintelligible problem statements, countermeasures that are wholly unrelated to the root cause, etc. Folks need practical training, practice, and coaching all the way up and down the organization.
  • Keep the system simple, transparent, quick, and local. Bureaucracy is the enemy of kaizen. People need to understand the system, easily know the status of their ideas, and get nearly immediate feedback when they first submit their idea…like in 24 hours. Think “subsidiarity,” push improvements and decisions around the improvements down to the lowest possible level – usually the natural work team.
  • Prioritize. When kaizen idea systems really kick into gear, expect dozens per person per year. Such a magnitude of ideas can’t be implemented at once. Teams should apply simple ways to prioritize (for example around impact on the team’s tiered performance metrics and the effort required to implement) and work no more than a handful at a time.
  • Don’t separate finding from fixing. Folks are truly engaged when they “own” the improvement, meaning they are invested in finding the problem and then personally fixing, or help fixing, it. Similarly, it is impossible to understand PDCA if one only does “P.”
  • Provide nimble resources for implementation. Effective lean organizations invest in modest, but targeted resources to help facilitate daily kaizen. These resources include the kaizen promotion office and “moonshine” departments.
  • Share and manage the change. Horizontal sharing of improvement ideas (yokoten) is an excellent way to recognize those who did the kaizen, while also inspiring others to “borrow” and further improve on the improvement. At the same time, there needs to be a low bureaucracy way to manage change to ensure that pragmatic standardization is maintained where needed.
  • Dole out the 3C’s. Leaders must constantly challenge folks to improve the process (easier, better, faster, cheaper!), provide them with the courage to try new things (“fail forward”), and to apply their creativity.

Do these eight things and avoid the Kaizen Roach Motel!

Related posts: Want a Kaizen Culture? Take Your Vitamin C!, Bridging to Daily Kaizen – 15 (or so) Questions, Book Review: How to Do Kaizen