Unfortunately there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of kaizen, viewing it only as small incremental improvements. Therefore a new term was introduced into the lean vocabulary: kaikaku. While kaizen means change for the better, kaikaku means reform or innovate and has been taken as referring to large change.
Often people think of kaizen as the small suggestions that the workforce makes, such as “clean this up,” “move this closer” and “resolve this safety concern.” The heavy lifting that would lead to rearranging the entire workplace for better flow would be considered kaikaku and requires management and technical specialists to be involved. Actually Toyota would refer to the small changes and the large disruptive changes—even introducing an entire new product line like Prius—as kaizen. And the thinking process is the same.
Toyota subscribes to the Deming philosophy of Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA). The plan includes the problem statement—a gap between the ideal state and the actual condition. In the Prius case it started when Eiji Toyoda warned that Toyota was not adequately prepared for the 21st century—there was a gap between the vehicles which had never fundamentally changed and what would be needed for the 21st century. Through much exploration of environmental trends and technology capabilities, Toyota decided to develop a hybrid vehicle.
There were thousands of kaizen (PDCA) activities required to get to the first generation Prius and many more to get to today’s versions. There were thousands of innovations in the battery technology alone to shrink the battery and increase its capacity. Any breakthrough change requires a great deal of kaizen, some big breakthroughs in concepts and many small steps.
The problem with kaikaku is that many companies seem to think you can get to a breakthrough in one big step. For example, a common practice is to run a kaikaku event in which you “blitz” a series of processes and change many things in a very short time period, like one or a few weeks. This is indeed disruptive and it is almost impossible to think through all the changes in much detail prior to implementation. It also almost guarantees the people who are left to live with the new process will not understand it, embrace it, or know how to control it. Thus, the disruption leads to an unstable process which local people will stabilize by largely reverting back to routines they are comfortable with.
A better approach would be to develop a plan for a breakthrough change, break it into pieces, and then systematically work through each piece step by step with the engagement of the people who have to live with the changes. Toyota always starts with a trial in a controlled environment and then pilots it in one place to work out the bugs before going live more broadly. This process of kaizen will lead to the breakthrough results and will be sustainable and continue to improve beyond the initial thinking.
Liker Leadership Institute (LLI) offers an innovative way to learn the secrets of lean leadership through an online education model that is itself lean, and extends that lean education far beyond the course materials. Learn more about LLI's green belt and yellow belt courses in "The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership" and "Principles of Lean Thinking" at the IndustryWeek Store.