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Ask the Expert: How Many Kaizen Events Should We Do Each Year?

I don’t like the arbitrary assignment by management that each department or value stream will conduct X number of kaizen events per month/year.

Question: How many kaizen events should we do each year?

Answer: It depends. It depends on how many improvement events you need to meet your performance improvement commitments for the year. It depends on how many you can properly resource. It depends on how many of your projects require scarce resources, e.g., process engineers, maintenance techs vs. what lower impact projects can be done principally with hourly associates.

Rather than set goals based on the number of kaizen events being done, I much prefer the goals be set in the language of business -- cost improvements, inventory (working capital) reduction, etc. For example, value stream managers might set a goal for supervisor and hourly led kaizen events at $50,000 cost and inventory improvement for the year. When one project is complete, then start a running record of the results, tee up the next priority and keep going with additional events until you exceed at least $50,000. 

Interestingly, in the same batch of new questions received from IW, there was this question: Are there any popular measures that you dislike? If yes, then why?

And here’s my answer to that one: I don’t like the arbitrary assignment by management that each department or value stream will conduct X number of kaizen events per month/year. I’ve been in operations where the shop floor was committed by personal objectives to conduct 20 kaizens a month. Too many events going on in a compressed timeframe can have negative effects on service and cost, not to mention the fact that there may not even be a measurable outcome that positively affects the business.

Here’s a summary of my typical experience with this topic in factories I visit.

  • Quick changeover events that require at least a 50% improvement lead the way in terms of effectiveness. An excellent payback, e.g., less than one year, almost always results due to reduced cycle times, reduced waste, reduced inventory, improved flow, improved service.
  • On the other hand, I too often see teams giving the same vigor to saving $1 bills as that required for saving $thousands. These are typically motivated by the arbitrary “gotta do X number of kaizens this month” mentality. The $1 team gets stuck and before you know it, scarce resources such as engineering, maintenance, etc., are pulled in ad hoc if they weren’t already assigned to the team. Too often these projects, even if done successfully, don’t move the needle on factory performance or are simply scoped to be beyond the capability of the team.
  • My thinking on small projects as noted above is this: If you have an hourly workforce who has been properly educated, trained and mentored through a pilot project, then inspire them to pursue projects on a scale they can manage to deliver the smaller but still important improvements being sought. Kaizen events are a great way to help hourly people learn to work in teams, communicate more effectively, make a difference in their value streams and learn to think, work and behave differently. Over time and repetition, they become the culture change that we all seek. Just don’t mistake what you’re doing for the robust productivity projects that are necessary to “make the numbers.” They typically require a much more sophisticated problem-solving process with higher skilled (scarce) resources.
  • In all cases, after a small kaizen event or a major productivity project, make certain that you close the loop on the process changes. This is the second biggest issue I often see, i.e., that “the paperwork” isn’t done in a timely way--if at all. For example, a formal engineering change notice (ECN) process either isn’t in place or else the hourly folks and others who need to be using it don’t know how. Sometimes I’ve found where they didn’t even know there was such a process. This is a supervisory issue. If the process has been changed in any way during the event, the loop must be closed. For example:
    • Ensure that any process changes have been updated into the authorized, formal system, e.g. bills of material, routers, job instructions. What’s your standard work for this?
    • A review of the changes must be made right away with everyone who is affected by the changes, e.g., all operators involved with the same processes must receive a report on the outcome of the project and be retrained as appropriate on all shifts. What’s your standard work to do this?
    • Accounting must be in the formal sign-off loop on the ECN to be sure costs have been updated right away in the system for productivity tracking and accurate reporting.
    • And don’t forget this: If you have sister plants that use the same processes, be sure to share your documentation on the successful project with them. Invite them to your plant to see the work you’ve done and to do a deep dive before taking the process to their own plant for implementation. This kind of global thinking will help the whole company get better, not just your shop. Ask your visitors to reciprocate and share their successes with you as well.

In summary, kaizen events can play an important role in making changes on the shop floor on a controlled scale that can be accomplished by the hourly workforce. However, be sure that these events don’t take the place of a robust productivity improvement process that yields needle-moving results found on the income statement and balance sheet. And please, no arbitrary goals on the number of events. Commit to doing however many events it takes to make the numbers you’ve committed to. Simply collect the ideas, prioritize them based on business impact, scope them to be managed by hourly employees and a mentor on the smaller ones with the manufacturing/quality engineers leading the major projects. Finally, always complete the system documentation, training, etc., within one week of the kaizen, and sooner is better. Every day matters.

“Your lean process should be a lean process.” Author Unknown 

“……Little is done to track performance, being busy is often mistaken for being strategic and a lot gets done with little accomplished.”       Ernie Spence

TAGS: Leadership
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