In the 1980s it was much in fashion to compare America to Japan. One of the key differences between the two nation’s approaches was that Japanese were much more likely to embrace a strategy of gradual, continuous improvement. Americans more-or-less lurched forward. We would start out with a sizable lead in some area, then wait until it was clear that we’d fallen behind. At that point we would rally the troops and quickly implement a set of innovations that would once again put us in the lead. Then the cycle would repeat itself.

An example of this was Sputnik. The USSR surprised the world, including the USA, by being the first nation to put a satellite in orbit. I was only 9 at the time but I distinctly remember people in the neighborhood looking skyward with telescopes and binoculars to catch a nighttime glimpse of the small, man made orb passing overhead. It captured mankind’s imagination. And it demonstrated clearly that America had fallen behind.

The American response was to dramatically increase spending in science and mathematics education, defense, and space research. President John F. Kennedy declared a national goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. The improvement project was on. And, of course, it worked. To be sure, the space program as well as education in math and science continued, but improvement never again reached the rates of the 1960s.

In 1986, Masaaki Imai established the Kaizen Institute to help Western companies introduce kaizen concepts, systems and tools. That same year, he published his book on Japanese management, Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. This best-selling book has since been translated into 14 languages. Kaizen means ongoing improvement involving everybody, without spending much money. It occupies a space between innovation and maintaining the status-quo (see Figure 1.) In an interview 11 years later Imai said “Many companies still have not fully embraced the kaizen concept.”

An illustration that shows how Kaizen occupies a space between innovation and maintaining the status-quo.
Figure 1: Kaizen

Kaizen is widely used in Japanese firms. Toyota is known to use the approach to engage its entire workforce in the ongoing quest for improvement. Most of the improvements wrought by Kaizen are small, but they add up. American firms pay lip service to improvement, but they failed to embrace Kaizen for well over a decade. This lack of interest in Kaizen in America could well have been due to America’s lack of interest in improvement that was “ongoing,” we want things fast! Enter the “Kaizen Blitz.”

Kaizen Event

The Kaizen Blitz, more commonly known as a Kaizen Event, is usually a five day affair that addresses a particular issue. The Lean Six Sigma Kaizen event usually follows the Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control (DMAIC) format. The issues that are addressed are usually those identified during an initial Lean deployment to a value stream. The Lean team creates a value stream that is as lean as possible for the moment, then identifies obstacles to moving closer to one piece flow. These obstacles, such as long changeover times, quality defects, equipment limitations, etc. are targets for Kaizen Events. The Kaizen Event combines several well-known improvement approaches into one:

Workout. GE’s workout was designed to identify quick ways to streamline a process. The Kaizen event follows what amounts to a Lean “workout” in the sense that obvious improvements in flow have already been made. However, a first step in a Kaizen event is to list other obvious ways to improve the process. These improvement activities are made immediately or assigned to an individual or group.
Just-do projects. These are improvements where it is obvious what needs to change, but it takes time and resources to make the changes.
Six Sigma projects. These are improvements where the desired goals are known, but the means of accomplishing these goals are unclear. The Six Sigma skill set of a Black Belt or Green Belt is needed to link the goal (Y) to the root causes that will accomplish it (Xs) via a transfer function (Y=f(x).)

What’s missing here is the original idea of Kaizen: gradual, continuous improvement. Still, I’m all for improvement any way I can get it. And in America the Kaizen event has caught on in a big way.

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