Using 5S to manage Kaizen

Posted on 7 Oct 2009 by The Manufacturer

Jon Miller of Gemba Research on how to ensure the ideal process flow for Kaizen

What is the ideal process flow for kaizen?

This is a good question and one that reveals how common it is to struggle with defining and scoping kaizen activity. To some people kaizen equals “making small improvements continuously” while to others it means “rapid breakthrough improvements” and to yet others kaizen may mean simply “improvement” not bound by size or effort to implement. When we introduce other terms such as kaikaku (revolutionary improvement, transformations) or jishuken (management-led kaizen projects) things can get even murkier. Love or hate the Japanese word meaning “to change and make better”, kaizen is increasingly a part of business excellence, public sector revitalization and even personal productivity. Toyota lives by the principles of kaizen and respect for people and will no doubt emerge stronger from their current troubles thanks to their adherence to these habits.

Not all kaizens are made the same. Some are small, some are big, some are simple and others complex solutions, and there is everything in between. As a leader managing process improvement it is necessary to understand how to properly field the various creative ideas from employees and help them actualize them. Not all ideas are worthy of action. Not all solutions came from a proper analysis of a problem, and even when they did the solutions may not be targeted to a root cause. Some kaizens are “just do it” items while others required piloting and several PDCA cycles. What’s the well-intentioned leader to do in managing kaizen?

This is a place where a bit of knowledge on how to properly apply the 5S principles come in very handy. Using 5S to manage kaizen follows the same steps:

Sort the kaizens. Distinguish between ideas that are well thought out and those that are solution jumps. Keep the ideas that are properly thought out and help people develop the ones that have promise. If an idea is bad, but there is clear recognition of a problem, help them sort through their ideas to find one that is workable.

Set the kaizens in order. Prioritize the kaizen by easy to do, big impact. A simple two by two matrix of impact and ease will help you present this visually. The 2nd S makes a place for everything and everything in its place, even kaizen ideas.

Sweep the kaizen. Clear out the trivial, non-mission critical and small but nagging tasks that fill up your mental space each day. E-mail is a good example. Turn it off, or let people know you’ve gone kaizenin’ and aren’t available. Sweep your workspace clean to make space for the highest priority kaizen activity. Be sure to return to that same desk later to kaizen the reason it gets filled with non-mission critical tasks in the first place.

Standardize the kaizen. Before you go too far, it’s important to have a set and agreed criteria for what should be a kaizen suggestion, what requires a small team and a few days of activity, and what kaizens need to be on the management agenda as a series of projects.

Sustain the kaizens. Put the framework in place to rapidly evaluate and support employee suggestions within hours of their submission, not days. Build competency within a large number of staff in the basic kaizen principles and tools so that kaizen events become quick, weekly and responsive to real-time business needs. Above all, change the mindset from kaizen being an expert-led initiative to an irreversible way of life.

In the ideal process flow for kaizen anyone can give their suggestions, the immediate team leader or supervisor evaluates them within the course of the day, and the timing and means of implementation is as close to today as possible uses as little resource as possible. A lot of foundation building is required in order to have a kaizen suggesting system that can handle thousands of ideas implemented each month. Start by designing a system that avoids these top 10 suggestion system pitfalls.

Put people first, apply the logic of lean and be true to the principles. As with lean implementation in the workplace, 5S is a good place to start when organizing how you manage kaizen activity. That’s only the beginning, and there is no end to improvement of process flow, even when the process is kaizen.

By Jon Miller of Gemba Research and Gemba Panta Rei blog.