The Japanese concept of kaizen, or continuous improvement, has been long lauded as a success. However, there have been charges levied against kaizen that it is simply a passing management fad, popular one day but out the next. Such an attitude is a truism: if a company treats it as a fad then it will be a fad. Here are six reasons why organizations fail when implementing kaizen.
Read first: An Introduction to Kaizen
More on Kaizen and Toyota Production System: TPS Article Series
One of the reasons of kaizen failure is that a company is not fully committed to making kaizen the cornerstone of their strategy. Kaizen isn’t simply a set of tools for implementation: it is a long term mind-set in which every single employee is committed to making things better.
From my experience, if you see an organization with one or more of the following features attempting to implement kaizen without changing, then there is a high possibility of kaizen implementation failure:
1) Kaizen is seen as a short term project
The emphasis here is on long-term improvement. Although the concept of kaizen is quite simple to understand, it is difficult to master and will need time before it is fully understood by all employees. The main problem with implementation is that often companies expect a quick turn around and visibility in KPIs within a year, and when it doesn’t appear, write kaizen off as a failure.
In reality, benefits will start to be felt in the small scale, before slowly propagating throughout the organization. When Toyota started producing cars, it was seen as many goods made in China are treated today: undesirable and of low quality. 40 years down the line, Toyota is considered the poster child for quality.
A company needs to be married to kaizen for it to succeed, as it is very much a long term relationship spanning the rest of their lives. Toyota has still not perfected the car and they never will, as kaizen dictates that there’s always something that could be done better or more efficiently.
2) Overemphasis on tying kaizen to KPIs
Kaizen can only succeed in places where there is a true desire to improve. While it is important to tie kaizen to KPIs, over emphasis on it would ignore the fact that improvements are often incremental, not revolutionary. Kaizen is like a snowball rolling down a gently sloping hill – it gathers momentum and increases in size as it comes down. The improvements gradually accumulate over time, as processes are perfected and methodologies tweaked.
3) Implemented in a heavily bureaucratic organization
Lack of commitment is only one of several common reasons why kaizen implementation fails. Kaizen will never succeed in an organization bogged down by a bureaucratic mind-set, filled with rules and procedures with people who would resist any sort of change. Another type is where change is punished and blocked, whether formally or socially, decimating any incentive to improve. Government organizations are often guilty of this, along with many Asian companies where efficiency and financial indicators plays back burner to personal relationships.
4) Management pays lip service to kaizen
The failure of kaizen is also often seen in companies which implement kaizen in wolf’s clothing. For example, a university I once came across implemented a suggestion box which was rarely checked, and called it kaizen. No training was given on how to analyse a problem to the root cause using 5-why analysis, nor any of the other kaizen concepts such as PDCA or the use of mieruka (visual controls) given. As a result none of the suggestions that came in were actually considered, nor were they actionable or could fix the problems at hand.
Worse yet, on the odd chance they did check the box and found suggestions, the top management simply ridiculed the suggestion, and would come up with excuses why the status quo was superior to what was suggested in public. As a result the feedback dried up as quickly as the paint on the box, and the project failed.
5) Where training on kaizen isn’t provided
Kaizen will never work if people do not implement its full suite of tools and concepts, with sufficient training given to take advantage of them. All the tools, especially the 5-why analysis and the mindset that everything can be improved, is an essential part
6) Where management does not support kaizen initiatives
The importance of support cannot be over emphasized: it is essential that management isn’t just fully on board, but essential that they want to fully embrace the long-term commitment of kaizen to the organization. They need to pass on their enthusiasm and demonstrate that even they are continually looking for new and better ways of doing things.
Kaizen is about everyone improving everything, not just a group doing all the work.
Kaizen is all about making things better in the long run, and improving your profits and processes. It is a strategy that needs to be implemented now, for the future. So have you seen organizations fail to implement kaizen? Are there any other reasons they failed?
Photo by David Wall