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This chapter is from the book

Kaizen Events

Learning the theory behind kaizen is important as you begin your lean journey. Now let’s talk about how to turn that philosophy into action. Often called a rapid improvement project, a kaizen event is a set time frame that is scheduled to allow a group of employees to come to together and implement lean and remove waste. The core of this book outlines how to create a company kaizen program and, more importantly, how to schedule, conduct, and follow up on kaizen events.

Kaizen events are structured time-wise and are very project-based. However, companies can get into a mode where they only wait for the kaizen events to make improvements. This is called event-lean. Kaizen events allow for the “shock and awe” effect and can positively impact company performance, but the test of an organization’s ability to keep the momentum going is to identify waste removal opportunities in between kaizen events.

Ideally, a company should try to get to the point where it can conduct kaizen events every month. Don’t expect to do this in the first year. Maybe scheduling kaizen events once a quarter or every other month is best in the beginning. It depends on your culture, production schedules, and what other important projects and activities are going on in the company. My job in this book is to provide you with information that will allow you to schedule monthly kaizen events. As time goes on, you will become better at planning and conducting them.

Many organizations use kaizen events but still cannot create a culture that embraces change, and many improvement efforts fall short of their cultural and financial goals. The reason behind this is that the company did not have the infrastructure in place to keep everyone involved, motivated, and, more important, wanting more. Kaizen events can become annoying to some if the events are disorganized and under management that does not support the efforts. Management must set clear direction on why kaizen events are important and place specific goals in front of each team. I will outline these important ingredients of the program in this book.

Common Mistakes Made in Kaizen Events

Kaizen events require focus and solid up-front planning. A company will have to allocate resources and invest time and money in the program. Kaizen and kaizen events do not require a lot of money, but in all honesty, money will be spent. However, the rate of return will be phenomenal. Kaizen teams also need goals placed before them to provide challenge and excitement. Never walk into a kaizen event without team goals at some level. Here are some common mistakes made in planning and conducting kaizen events:

  • Lack of communication
  • Lack of planning
  • Poor team selection
  • No goals

Lack of Communication

Communication will be addressed in greater detail in Chapter 3, but allow me to describe it a little here. The mistake that organizations make is not communicating to all employees that lean and kaizen are going to be a way of life. As kaizen events are scheduled, they must be made known and their importance understood. Everyone should know when the events are to take place, who is on the team, who the team leader is, what area has been selected, and the goals and objectives for the team. This way the factory will know who will be relieved of their normal responsibilities to focus on the kaizen event. Ongoing communication about lean projects shows commitment from leadership, and that kaizen events will not go away.

A couple of years ago I was discussing a potential partnership with the manager of a plant that manufactures lighting fixtures. This organization had been conducting kaizen events and was three years into its lean journey. The conversation led to the importance of ongoing events and communication. The manager believed in basically saturating his people with information about kaizen events, and regardless of other organizational activities, an improvement project was always scheduled. In his words, “hell or high water, we are having a kaizen event.” Before the culture could revert to established routines and business as usual, another kaizen event was coming. Ongoing information about the progress of the lean journey is essential to keeping the lean fire lit.

Lack of Planning

Solid up-front planning is critical to the success of kaizen events. When I was a young industrial engineer learning about lean, I came into contact with many consultants and trainers. Some of the earlier kaizen event teachings did not emphasize the need for preplanning. The leader was supposed to walk into day one of a kaizen event and do the training and analysis on that day. Very little preparation was done, and as I used this philosophy, I saw how it negatively affected the results of the project. Some kaizen events require very little preparation and others involve prior analysis. In Chapter 4 I will break down the key tasks that should be completed prior to kaizen events, starting at four weeks ahead all the way down to the day before the event.

The number of preplanning activities will vary depending on the kaizen event. Analyzing waste, conducting time studies or process mapping, and analyzing flow may be necessary to establish a current state. Supplies such as floor tape, bins, racks, signs, paint, and labels may need to be ordered. Maybe the company wants to bring in employees from sister plants or from suppliers to be part of the event. Tools and equipment might need to be reserved or rented. It is important to think about these things ahead of time to ensure that everything is ready for the event.

Poor Team Selection

Selecting the right employees to participate in a kaizen event—gathering a good mix of talents and disciplines—is the single most important aspect of any event. As previously mentioned in this chapter, lean and kaizen involve everyone, so your kaizen teams will be different every time. A mistake that is often made when putting together kaizen teams is not selecting people from the production line. Operators and frontline personnel possess intimate knowledge of the process and product, and creating their early buy-in is a key ingredient to sustaining improvements. Each team will need a maintenance person, line operators, engineers, managers, material handlers (if applicable), and maybe another office employee. The number of team members will depend on the complexity of the kaizen event and what needs to be accomplished; I will discuss this in greater detail in Chapter 3. By having a diverse kaizen team, you enable the group to come up with a greater variety of improvement ideas than would probably come from a team consisting of just managers and engineers.

No Goals

A company kaizen program is established and in place to act as a foundation for making and maintaining improvements. Part of this foundation is creating goals. Kaizen teams need clear goals and objectives from the company. The ultimate goal of lean is to fulfill the needs of the customer. Outside of developing positive and healthy relationships, the customer’s expectations come in the form of the three business drivers: cost, quality, and delivery. The job of an organization is to find the competitive balance among the three. If an organization is meeting or exceeding the expectations of on-time delivery, the cost of products and services, and the quality of services for its customers, then it is focusing on the right things. So how is lean connected to cost, quality, and delivery? And with respect to kaizen team goals, what type of metrics should be improved? Figure 1-1 illustrates the connection between improving metrics and improving the customer’s expectations. All of the metrics can negatively or positively affect cost, quality, and delivery. The goals for each kaizen team should focus on at least two of these metrics since they are directly connected to the customer.

Figure 1-1

Figure 1-1 Metric connection



Productivity is improved when more products are made and more services are provided with less effort. The less material, parts, manpower, time, utilities, paperwork, processes, and steps that are needed, the more costs can be reduced. Quality is improved because the opportunities for error are decreased. Fewer steps mean faster throughput and better delivery. Kaizen teams should always pursue productivity improvement goals.


There are essentially three types of material: raw material, partially finished goods, and 100 percent finished goods. Sheet metal, the raw material, can be cut into small pieces such as brackets, plates, or covers. These parts then become work in process (WIP) and can be placed into a product and moved on to another processing step. Partially completed products move through various stages of assembly or processing until they become a finished product ready for sale. Regardless of the stage that this material is in, it costs money. Inventory should be kept at a minimum throughout the plant regardless of its phase in manufacturing. Manufacturing processes should be short with minimal steps so that unnecessary WIP does not build up. WIP can hide quality errors that may eventually lead to rework. Kaizen teams can focus their efforts on reducing inventory levels and WIP. Obviously a lower level of inventory can reduce cost, but it can also improve quality by creating better visibility of problems that can potentially hide in excess WIP. And large clumps of WIP are stopping points or slow-moving points that can adversely affect delivery.


Improving quality is essential to maintaining and acquiring customers. The last thing you need is to be known as a supplier of poor products and services. I feel that people in general are loyal to quality over anything else. A small percentage is looking for the cheapest deal, but when it comes down to it, quality prevails.

Quality starts with the culture an organization has developed, particularly a mind-set of proactive error prevention rather than reactively dealing with problems. Errors will occur if human beings are part of the manufacturing process. Even in highly automated environments, machines and equipment require human interaction such as setup, maintenance, programming, cleanup, and changeover. An automated process’s output is only as good as the human input.

The concept of quality at the source is an effective lean approach to quality that places the responsibility for checking and rechecking the product at the point of build. Frontline production workers need to check the product at various stages of manufacturing to ensure that errors are being caught. Errors are cheap; defects are not. Operators must perform certain incoming and outgoing checks throughout the process. They should check work done in the previous process, or by a previous worker, then perform their own task, and then perform a quality check on the work they just did. Quality at the source results in a tremendous improvement in overall quality. When checks are performed throughout the process, multiple eyes are on the product. This results in a product that is virtually error-free by the time it reaches a more formalized inspection point at the end of the line. Self- and successive checks are very common in a lean journey, but only correct implementation of these checks will ensure that they are performed. Kaizen team goals for quality could be to reduce scrap costs, rework hours, and testing errors, for example. These measures will definitely reduce costs, the end product will be of better quality, and with fewer mistakes and rework, promised delivery dates are attainable.

Floor Space

Manufacturing companies often overuse their existing floor space as unneeded items begin to accumulate. Also, processes themselves are too long and too wide, which results in longer paths for parts and products. Over time, less space is available for production and growth. Sometimes manufacturers come up with plans to physically expand the existing building to accommodate new product lines and products. I say you should “lean it out first before adding.” Kaizen teams can focus on reducing the amount of floor space being used for current processes. Once space is better used, new product implementations or capacity increases can take place. When floor space use is reduced, cost is reduced because companies begin to take proactive approaches to buying items for the production floor, purchasing only when something is really needed. Quality is improved because less clutter means less chance for part damage. Better use of floor space means smaller and simpler processes that will help in meeting delivery requirements. Fewer complications, less distance, and fewer physical obstacles equal on-time delivery.


Depending on the type of operation, companies may use a traditional manual assembly line with workstations. If you are a machine shop, you could have computer numerical control (CNC) machines, mills, drill presses, and other types of computer-controlled equipment. Maybe your process includes work areas where production workers simply have a place to work. Regardless of the type of work area on the factory floor, the right numbers of people, machines, and stations are essential for better performance. Sometimes it is simply a question of creating a better ratio of people to machines, more efficient equipment utilization, or increased uptime. That right mix needs to be effectively associated with demand.

Station reduction or better use of stations goes hand in hand with floor space use and productivity. Having fewer stations means less “stuff”—fewer workbenches, parts, shelves, tools, paperwork, fixtures, lights, etc. Using the appropriate number of workstations limits the number of people in the process and therefore decreases the opportunity for error. Again, I am not implying job loss, just smarter use of people and the work they perform. Kaizen teams can have a goal of reducing the number of workstations, consolidating processes, or coming up with a more balanced workload among operators. Reducing the number of workstations reduces the cost associated with extra items and too much labor. Quality is improved and work content among workers is balanced and better defined, so work areas can be better used. Fewer stations and processes required to complete products mean faster delivery.

Travel Distance

Longer than needed processes generate plenty of waste. Longer production lines and part flow paths require more people, extend lead times, and add inventory. Travel distance is 100 percent linked to delivery. It takes more time for something to travel 300 feet than 30 feet. The longer a product is in the building, the more money it costs. As an example, I led a kaizen event where the team was required to reduce travel distance by 30 percent. It was a reasonable goal, and the team focused their waste reduction efforts on achieving that goal. After they calculated the correct number of workstations for the assembly line, balanced the work between stations, and converted to single-piece flow, travel distance went from 350 feet to 50 feet. By eliminating 300 feet of travel distance, the team reduced the throughput time by 82 percent, from 11 hours to 2 hours. Think about the customers waiting for their products on these lines . . . delivery, delivery, delivery!

So, kaizen teams can have travel distance reduction goals based on the respective product line. Cost is reduced simply because it requires less effort to complete the product. Quality is improved because there is less distance to travel and fewer chances for error. And delivery—well, I think I have said enough about that.

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