Why Big Changes Require Many Small Changes: Kaizen and Kaikaku

Nov. 14, 2013
Any breakthrough change requires a great deal of kaizen, some big breakthroughs in concepts and many small steps.

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.


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About the Author

Jeffrey Liker Blog | CEO

Dr. Jeffrey K. Liker is Professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan and a professional speaker and advisor through his company Liker Lean Advisors (LLI), an organization established with a network of associates to teach and consult in the Toyota Way. He is also CEO of Lean Leadership Institute, the home for online courses beginning with The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.

Dr. Liker is author of the international best-seller, The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World's Greatest Manufacturer (McGraw Hill, 2004), which speaks to the underlying philosophy and principles that drive Toyota's quality and efficiency-obsessed culture. The companion (with David Meier) Toyota Way Fieldbook (McGraw Hill, 2005) details how companies can learn from the Toyota Way principles. His book with Jim Morgan, The Toyota Product Development System (Productivity Press, 2006), is the first that details the product development side of Toyota. His articles and books have won nine Shingo Prizes for Research Excellence and The Toyota Way also won the 2005 Institute of Industrial Engineers Book of the Year Award and 2007 Sloan Industry Studies Book of the Year. In 2012 he was inducted into the Association of Manufacturing Excellence Hall of Fame. He is a frequent keynote speaker and consultant.

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