Kaizen and the art of elephant eating

Posted on 11 Mar 2009 by The Manufacturer

"Do you have an elephant that needs to be eaten?" Jon Miller introduces the elephant test...

Do you have an elephant that needs to be eaten? If you did, would you know? There is something called the elephant test which comes from the field of law. It is often used for cases in which something “is hard to describe, but instantly recognizable when spotted.” We often know or feel something is not right, but cannot describe it adequately. Continuous improvement through kaizen requires setting up standards as a result of the change, making normal and abnormal very clear so that the problem is both easy to spot and to describe. For all other cases, there is the elephant test: we all agree that it is a problem, even though we may see it differently.

Here are three common metaphors involving elephants and the “eating of them”, or resolving the problem through kaizen.

1. The elephant in the room is an obvious truth that is being ignored or a clear problem that is not being addressed. Everyone knows it is there. It is big. You can’t deny it. Yet nobody is talking about it. A management team overly concerned about small, possibly irrelevant day-to-day issues may be actively avoiding the elephant in the room. When you are sliding down the change management curve from resistance to denial, you turn a blind eye to the elephant in the room. The first step is acknowledge the metaphorical elephant in the room, often requiring you to literally leave the room to go see for yourself.

2. The elephant and the blind men is a story from India. Six blind men examine an elephant and describe it in completely different ways, flat like a banana leaf (ears), long like a snake (trunk), thick like a tree (leg), and so forth. All of them are right, but none of them have adequately described the elephant. This is a classic conflict resolution challenge: seeing the problem from the other person’s point of view. Even after we have acknowledged the elephant in the room, we need to recognize that we have only a partial view of the issue. In order to do kaizen we must clarify the issues, break down the problem, and drill down to the root causes before we can reassemble it into a better whole.

3. The white elephant was considered holy in Thailand and parts of Asia. As such, the rare albino elephants required special care, which was quite expensive. Naturally, you could not put a white elephant to work so what an owner of a white elephant had on their hands was something quite costly and of little practical use. This was alright if you were a king or otherwise unreasonably wealthy. Sometimes a white elephant was given as a gift, in effect burdening the recipient of the gift with a huge cost. White elephants can be pet projects, expensive machines or any expensive decisions which we hold sacred and continue to pay for in spite of good sense. Often these white elephants take up residence as the elephant in room. The kaizen approach to white elephants is to identify the customer, ask what the customer values, and manage by fact.


How do you eat an elephant? The answer to this question is in the photograph of the vicious little fish above: through many small bites. Eating an elephant is a metaphor for accomplishing a daunting task. An elephant is so large that there is no animal on this planet that can eat it in one bite. The same is true of many of the problems, projects or challenges we give ourselves: we can’t do it all at once, or all by ourselves. The kaizen approach is to start now and make many small improvements, enlisting the ideas and efforts of everyone, working relentlessly until the job is done. Even an elephant won’t last long in the piranha-infested waters of the Amazon, and the same is true of even our toughest problems when addressed through kaizen.

By Jon Miller of Gemba Research and Gemba Panta Rei blog