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When to Kaizen: Events Versus Workshop

When to Kaizen: Events Versus Workshop

What is kaizen? Here are some answers I have heard:

  • It’s one of those five-day things that puts 15 busy people in a room, proposes a whole bunch of changes, and ends with an implementation plan and a pizza party.
  • It’s one of those things that people grouse about for the next six months.
  • It’s one of those things that consultants get paid big money to lead. Then they leave. And you get the plan to implement, the backwash of ill will, and nagging questions in your mind about whether it was worth it.

So is this really kaizen?

No. kaizen means “good change” in Japanese. The Japanese got the idea from W. Edwards Deming, an American engineer and mathematician of the mid-twentieth century. (It isn’t some mysterious eastern philosophy!) And he called it “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is just continuous improvement – in all of its forms. The kaizen “event” is not “kaizen.”

Event Kaizen: What Are the Problems?

I’ve seen two big problems with “event kaizen” when it is brought into organizations that are just starting out using lean tools.

First, in organizations that are just starting down a lean journey, there is often a lack of clarity about how to define and measure a problem. Especially measure. As in, “we currently have no way to measure the performance of this system, but it is a big pain. Please fix it.” In an intensive five-day event, you have little time to figure out how to measure your problem, or collect data on the current condition, let alone get historical data to understand how big the problem is. Most of the time, the answer is “skip the data.” And then, months later, we have only a vague impression of whether or not “those five days” made any difference in our work. But there is no doubt that people remember the resentment they felt for the disruption to their routines. Congratulations! You have just inoculated your organization against lean.

Second, there are problems inherent in the relationship between an organization and a consultant who has a contract for one week plus some limited preparation and minimal follow-up.

How deeply does the consultant know that organization and the team’s level of experience with lean tools? Surely they ask, but they may not have a very nuanced understanding about what will actually help develop your people.

In the best case, the consultant wants to teach lean tools and develop capacity for long-term change, but is that aligned with the motivation of the team members? They’ve been told to fix “the big problem,” not to go learn how to fix little problems every day. In the very worst case, the consultant may not even see it as in her or his interest to teach anything about lean that can be used long-term.

We may be asking too much of everyone during those five days. Remember, we will judge the results of that week based on the outcome of that process (which may or may not have any valid measures determined), but the real gains are made when people have the knowledge and tools to make incremental improvements every day at work.

 Continuous improvement? No, “the event” actually becomes dis-continuous improvement. As in, we only improve our systems when the consultant is around.

(Mark Hamel and Chet Marchwinski recently posted about several other problems, so you may want to look at their essay, too. The video, in my opinion, needs subtitles to translate from lean jargon to English, but the essay is clear.)

Workshops: Continuity in Building Capacity

So what is the alternative? I am an advocate for the lean workshop. Let’s focus on a specific process, bring together a cross-functional team already engaged in the work, announce from the get-go that this is “training in context,” (message: you are being paid to learn and to fix your work), and commit to one-and-a-half to two hours, once a week, for as long as it takes – probably eight to twelve meetings, depending on the scope set at the beginning.

This gives the group time to work through the common lean tools with time to reflect on work from one meeting to the next. Hopefully the seventh workshop begins with someone contributing something like “I’m not sure we got it right last week.” Or “could I use that tool we learned last week in this other work I’m doing in this way?” That is the sound of learning happening.

It also gives the participants time to do “homework” – when they go back to their office home – like planning and conducting Voice of the Customer research. Or developing performance metrics, putting out the tally sheets, and compiling the data for a week’s worth of work.

In other words, if you are trying to build continuous improvement, you need to give the experience some … continuity.

When To Kaizen

Does that mean the answer to “when to kaizen” is “never?”

No, the intensive event is useful, but like all tools, you need to know when to use it, not just how to use it. Do a kaizen event when the problem crosses many parts of the organization, is truly pressing and requires a change in direction soon, there are performance measures already in place and, most importantly, the organization already trusts lean tools and processes. If you can start with a clear problem definition, good metrics to measure your performance improvements, and participants who can jump right in when the facilitator asks whether a step is “value added or non-value added,” then kaizen.

Or rather, always kaizen. That is, build the habits and capacities that lead to continuous improvement. Build them continuously. And don’t let the experience of the premature kaizen event – stress, confusion, and resistance to “this lean stuff” – overcome the experience of true continuous improvement – joy, pride, and wonder at the progress we are all making a little bit at a time.

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About Steven Thomson

Steven Thomson is an independent consultant working with local government agencies on performance management and process improvement. He comes to this work as an applied cultural anthropologist working on questions of ethnic and religious diversity, community-driven development, and connections between local and national politics. Learn more about him at

The views expressed by guest writers represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.