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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Why Kaizen Boards (Typically) Don’t Work

Why Kaizen Boards (Typically) Don’t Work post image

A Kaizen board is a neat concept. It’s a visual tool that keeps track of all the ideas for improvements gathered across a team and then helps to analyze the status of ongoing improvement experiments. What we get from using a Kaizen board is we encourage everyone to participate in improvement process, visualize ongoing and planned improvements and give ourselves some sort of a tracking mechanism.

That’s the theory.

In practice I haven’t seen such a board that would work well.

I don’t say it isn’t possible to make it work. I just say it’s unlikely.

To answer why I think so, I have to bring the old story repeated multiple times in the context of Lean. When Japanese started kicking Americans’ butts in automotive industry in the second part of twentieth century Americans sent their managers to see what’s so different in factories in Japan. Surprisingly enough Japanese were super-open and transparent with all the tools and practices they had in place. Americans meticulously noted all the novel stuff they learned and implemented the same tools and methods back home. Guess what. It didn’t work.

It didn’t work because all these practices weren’t really game changers. The real game changer was underlying mindset that actually made these tools and methods work. By the way, this was also a reason why sharing all the secrets about practices wasn’t a problem. They weren’t nearly enough to make a difference.

We pretty much recreate the same story when we try tools like Kaizen boards or when we create Kaizen teams. We introduce a tool and believe it will change the game. It won’t.

The magic behind thousands and thousands of improvements implemented in Toyota every year is not any of the tools. It is a culture that supports trying stuff out. It is mindset that enables that. All that continuous improvement is happening not because people submit improvement ideas to Kaizen boards but because people are actively experimenting. They do stuff.

If you tried using a Kaizen board this picture may be familiar. There was lots of stuff submitted to the board but very few, if any, real changes were observable in your working environment. Now ask yourself: what would it take for any team member to try something out. Would people need to get permission and a blessing before they changed the way they worked? And then, when the thing failed, would they need to explain or ask forgiveness? Would they feel that they were co-creating the system they were a part of?

In most organizations I know these answers would tell you why your Kaizen board or Kaizen team or Kaizen whatever doesn’t have a slightest chance to work. In fact, in such a situation a Kaizen board would just be a nice excuse. I’d had that awesome idea but it wasn’t accepted. I’d come up with that great improvement but there wasn’t time to implement it.

Except then you shouldn’t call it a Kaizen board but an excuse board.

And the best part is: if you have right mindset and the right culture in place a Kaizen board isn’t needed at all. People just run their improvement experiments. Of course some of them last and some of them don’t. Then you obviously can use a Kaizen board as a tracking and visualization tool. Unless you get there though – don’t bother.

in: software business

12 comments… add one

  • Rajendra Raja March 1, 2014, 11:08 am

    Very true. What you are saying is fine and very valid. But we must not forget difference between RELIGION ( Ritualistic and repeatitive) and SPIRTUALISM ( deep internal mindset connect and expoloration) spread in all communities.

    Therefore display board, kaizen boards, visualisation is the basic requirements of any team work or group collective activity. Only then comes mindset issue.

  • Christopher Mahan March 3, 2014, 2:29 pm

    I’ve come to the conclusion that corporate culture is a byproduct of the corporate power structure, following both formal and informal organizational structure. If the power rests squarely on the individual contributor, then Lean, Agile, Kaizen, etc. have a chance to work. If power is retained by the management layer, then there is no chance. When management imposes Lean, Agile and all the others, they cannot succeed. When individual contributors introduce lean, agile, etc but management blocks them, then there is no success, or very marginal success. It’s only when individual contributors implement Lean/Agile/Kaizen and management gets out of the way that I’ve seen it work.

  • Nicolas Umiastowski March 14, 2014, 4:46 am

    So it is useless to try to import”techniques” from one culture into another culture. Shouldn’t we try by ourselves, here in the western world, to find out how to improve our own ways of working. From that point of view, go and see how Toyota works is counter-productive. It would only lead us to inefficient imitation, and not true discovery.
    We should do as Taiichi Ohno: observe how it works in the western word, think, and create our own solution, for the western world. A process is very dependant on the cultural environment.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 17, 2014, 3:15 pm

    @Nicolas – That’s a very interesting observation. I would point though that on a culture / mindset level what we look for here is pretty universal throughout the world. The true north is a culture of continuous improvements.

    In fact, not without a reason Deming is considered a godfather of changes in Japan. This is not a mindset that is, or was, present only in a part of the world.

    Another interesting observation is that in other industries, e.g. in IT, Japan doesn’t do nearly as well as it does in manufacturing. The very same principles doesn’t seem to be easily translated to the context of knowledge work. Why?

    I guess there’s no simple answer for that, yet for the very same reasons our romance with Lean will not yield great results unless we understand the context. And this is the point when we are in a complete agreement. We need first to understand how the work get done in our context and only then we can move forward.

  • Hal March 18, 2014, 5:43 am

    Pawel, I can’t argue with you. Kaizen initiatives are universally underperforming. So let’s not look where it’s not working. There are bright spots. Subaru America in Lafayette, IN is just one of those places. Subaru employees are doing kaizen at the rate of over 100 adopted improvements/person/year. They are not Japanese. They are midwest autoworkers who have been selected for being a just a little dissatisfied with the way things are and trained to learn why that is so and what to do to make changes.

    There is another company in the Seattle area whose employees make over 200 adopted improvements/person/year. Read about them in the book Two-Second Lean, by Paul Akers.

    The “secret” is to make improvement everyone’s everyday work. Not so hard!

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 18, 2014, 6:28 am

    @Hal – I wouldn’t treat improvement-o-meter as a single measure whether a company is improving or not, but I agree that it’s pretty good indicator that something is happening there.

    I really like how you point dissatisfaction with how things are done as one of the drivers for hiring people. Of course that can’t be the only thing or you risk to end up with whiners. In fact, at least in knowledge industry it’s much easier to improve the way we work even on individual level thus we may be looking for people who have a track record in doing that already (even if it was done in unstructured way).

    The secret is everyday’s improvement. It’s just there’s so much things packed into the word improvement here that makes it a challenge.

    Because I still believe it is a challenge. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t be discussing few organizations here and there but we’d see examples in every other office building.

    PS. Thanks for recommending the source!

  • Marco April 29, 2014, 6:06 am

    Agree with the article, except that it’s probably “kanban” not “kaizen” boards. Kanban are (also) boards where you show your working process steps and current activities status, in order to better highlight everything and find, whether possible, possible improvements and process changes.
    Kaizen is the base philosophy behind kanban (and JIT and many other things) that, as you say, cannot be exported to US or wherever. This philosophy, that usually do not use boards (as far as I know), it’s what the rest of the world needs (as W. E. Deming said).

  • David Lowe May 27, 2014, 6:06 am

    It’s a fair point, Pawel, and it goes for pretty much any and all of the visual suggestions across lean and agile practices. I’ve seen quite a few teams try to emulate another (through daily stand-up, retros, Scrum boards, etc), without actually understanding the underlying concepts. Of course, it all turns to a sticky mess before long.

    Nice post.

  • Marco May 28, 2014, 4:45 am

    About the point on Japanese IT, I’ve asked some developers I know and even the simple Pomodoro technique is something absolutely foreigner to them. I mean: they sometimes have heard about it, but having even short breaks seems not allowed or not common.
    So, probably, the concept of kaizen is still inside Japanese people’ hearts but, for example, applying kanban and kaizen concepts in IT environments is not so easy to them since, I think, they do not (yet) consider IT a strategic asset (like industry and cars, for example) and so they do not (yet) care about improving.
    I can’t guess what would happen if a Japanese comes working here in an Italian company: morning coffe break, mid-morning coffee break, (often) 1 hour lunch break, mid-afternoon coffe break, … :)

    Pawel, I think we’ll be able to discuss this topic next friday here in Italy. :)

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 28, 2014, 5:08 am

    @David – You’re right and in fact this is one of themes I’m much into these days. We tend to copy practices and techniques, yet without understanding it will likely end up as a cargo cult. Kaizen boards or Kaizen events are just one example. The list, as you point, is long and goes beyond visualization.

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 28, 2014, 5:16 am

    @Marco – I’d speculate that, by now, pretty much any big company understands the importance of IT in their success. I’d be surprised if it was the low importance attached to IT operations that was the root cause here.

    There is however a big difference how the work is designed in physical and knowledge work. In the latter context often it is a line worker who can tweak the process and often in unnoticeable way. For example what happens when a developer starts writing unit tests. Or when they switch from test after to test first approach.

    It isn’t like a line worker changing where they stand at the factory line. There’s no visible artifact of change. At the same time the process itself is easily changeable. It doesn’t require rearranging machines and stations to start working in a completely different way. Finally, we don’t produce replaceable parts. Each feature we build is unique at least in some way.

    From my experience that context changes a lot and makes all the tools we use very different. Without understanding that organization won’t be ready for the continuous change.

  • Timo May 2, 2016, 10:32 am

    Dear Pawel,
    When I read your article I was laughing out loud – you describe very well the challenges and hurdles we had in my department. Our learning process was:
    1) Awareness: We must become more efficient – now!
    2) Solution: Introduce something new – Kaizen?!?
    3) Learning: It doesn’t work right away. There is more than the technique.
    4) Reflecting: The management must be committed to invest into the staff (allowing mistakes, concentrate on solutions not hurdles, etc.)
    5) Walk the talk: The management realized that success cannot be ordered BUT supported
    6) Adaptation: Use Kaizen tools as suitable for the specific situation
    7) Calibrate and assure short term success stories: Hey it works – also in Europe
    8) Change: We started to do things differently
    9) Realization: After another 3 years it will be part of our culture.
    I do not know whether my company is special or if it is simply the commitment of the managers. I will never again work without lean tools – they are an enabler for change.

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