Point Kaizen vs. Systemic Change

January 1, 2011
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Ultimately, the goal of a lean initiative is to produce more output at a higher quality with shorter lead time using fewer resources. Not all lean initiatives accomplish these goals. A common reason for disappointment is management’s lack of clear goals, combined with a failure to understand the difference between point kaizen and systemic change.

Kaizen is the Japanese word for continuous improvement. Point Kaizen refers to an intensive transformation event where a single workcell is overhauled and “made lean” in the span of a few days. Many folks believe that Lean is Point Kaizen, but really it is only part of the initiative.

Let’s say a Point Kaizen event is scheduled. On the appointed days, consultants and workers gather and work feverishly for several days to improve a workcell. Five Ss are performed on the workstations. Flow racks and 2-bin systems are bolted in place. Kanban cards and FIFO queues control the flow. The workcell is totally transformed, and can now be considered lean. Management wanted lean, and the workers and the consultant gave them lean.

Life is good! Or is it? Why don’t we see the effect of lean in the bottom line? Maybe we have not done enough. We’ll redouble our efforts! Several more Point Kaizen events are scheduled and still, not a blip on the bottom line. At this point, somebody says: “I am not seeing the results, so why should we continue to expend resources on Lean?” This is a great question.

Let’s do a time out. At this point, what do we have? The improved process within the workcell is now an island of efficiency in the midst of an ocean of waste. The workers and the consultants “did lean”, while the senior managers, who are very busy, have not yet attended the Lean 101 class. Likely, many of the managers do not even know the name of the consultant at this point. There are no over-arching goals and the level of organizational commitment is weak.

It is now time for a systemic approach. Systemic Change is process focused and has organizational bottom line goals, such as saving money, increasing output, decreasing production lead time, and improving quality.

A master plan, documented as on a single page A3 sheet, tells the story of how the goal(s) can be met by the proposed countermeasures. A Future State Value Stream Map shows many Kaizen Burst cloud shaped icons, each representing a point kaizen mini-project, all of which must be completed before the Future State flow can be attained. Somewhere on the Value Stream is a bottleneck, which becomes the target of the first Point Kaizen event. Bottlenecks can be in the physical material workflow, but likely the most important bottlenecks are in the information flow. The kaizen projects for both material flow and information flow are implemented according to a prioritized list. Managers not only allocate resources, but also actively participate in many of the Point Kaizen events because managers also learn better by doing.

Systemic Change is built on a foundation of Point Kaizen. Any operation slated for an upgrade must be retooled while it is running. Usually, only one workcell at a time can be changed quickly and safely, without jeopardizing the company’s ability to deliver. Each Point Kaizen event delivers only one of many improvements needed for overall flow to improve. The bottom line improves only when total throughput has increased, total production lead time has decreased, and quality has increased, all without increasing labor costs.

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