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The First Kaizen Event

At this point in X-Corp’s lean journey, things were moving along fairly well. We would have benefited from additional training on other lean topics, but, after only three months, the company had made significant progress and team members were still passionate about the journey. But I knew that many companies begin down this path with a lot of zeal, which tends to start fading a few months into the process.

The first kaizen event was scheduled for mid-April, and my excitement was mounting. The lean consultants were scheduled to be available during the week-long event. When a company hires a lean consultant or firm, it is critical to identify its expected level of involvement. When I later became a consultant, I made it my responsibility to guide my clients in the right direction, even if it means rolling up my sleeves and diving in with them. Unfortunately, some consultants are not as involved in the actual process, and many do not provide the level of leadership or direction needed during a kaizen event. Sadly, this was the case at X-Corp. It was during the very first kaizen event that I felt the path for success begin to change direction.

The consultants made a big mistake: They never gave us formal training on kaizen or on how kaizen events are conducted. Our expectation was that we would take the information gained from the value stream mapping and data collection exercises to initiate improvements. Four teams were established, again consisting of the same employees who had participated in the prior training and exercises. Then, as odd as it may seem, the consulting company instructed X-Corp to discard any information that we had obtained. The consultants wanted the four new teams to collect their own information on the first day of the event and then use the data to generate ideas for the rest of the week.

This is traditional kaizen consulting, in which most of the planning is done during the first day of the event. However, in my professional experience, I have found significant value in performing a current state analysis before the event (see Chapter 4), and I highly recommend using this process rather than the traditional approach. The new teams can always find additional ways to improve the process. In the case of X-Corp, the change in direction caused some irritation for those who had performed the earlier analysis, and many felt a bit soured on the whole process.

In an attempt to lift their spirits, I brought my team members together one week before the kaizen event and explained that we would be using the information previously collected. Although everyone was still excited, the group, as a whole, seemed to have lost some energy.

The first day of the kaizen event arrived, and the teams met with the lean consultant to prepare for the week. Except for me, no one had any idea what to do or what was expected. The consultant gave a short inspirational speech on lean manufacturing, and then we were excused to begin our projects. As the team members slowly left the training room, it was apparent that they were confused and unsure of the next action.

I quickly assembled my team and explained that we needed to assess the work content we had captured in the time and motion studies. This information would help us balance the work evenly among the workstations, allowing us to identify what was needed to perform the work. Basically, we were going to sort the area and discard all the unnecessary items from the engine line. This made sense to the team, so we quickly headed for the engine line.

After calculating takt (the cycle times for the workstations; discussed in detail in Chapter 5), I divided the team into two groups. We found an area in the plant where we could place the unneeded items. One group remained in that area. The other group took responsibility for identifying unneeded items and removing them from the engine line area. Fortunately, we had two line operators in this group to assist us. The group in the removal placement area simply received the items and then organized them. This system worked very well.

The other kaizen teams, however, were struggling, because they had no direction and no idea what they were supposed to do. The consultant simply walked around and made useless comments to the teams, usually pointing them in a direction that was not correct. Each team had current state data from their respective areas but did not use it because they had been told to ignore it. Clearly, this was a bad beginning for X-Corp’s journey and not good for the first kaizen event.

The teams struggled to understand why they were not allowed to use the up-front planning information they had gathered. Over the years, experience has shown me that up-front planning is important. Therefore, I have ignored the traditional kaizen approaches and developed my own system. The traditional approach allows the teams to come up with improvement ideas, on their own, during the kaizen event. In my opinion, you can still get this benefit even after using current state data on the respective process.

After the first day, my team had made significant progress. We had successfully removed all the unnecessary items from our assigned area except the old conveyor. While we waited for the line workers to finish work for the day, I took the opportunity to visit the other teams and my colleagues in the other areas of the factory. They were confused, and the consultant was giving them no direction. Actually, he had left to have dinner with the plant managers and was not planning to return until the next morning. The team leaders assembled for a talk. I explained that our team was using the data collected during the last few months and was moving ahead. The other team leaders saw that this was a good approach and agreed to begin using their information. With management out of the picture for the time being, all the teams started crunching numbers and coming up with line layouts. They worked until about 9:00 p.m.

As the second day began, most of the teams were unhappy with the guidance they had received from the consultants and upper management. It was the consensus that if we had not been told to discard our data, we would be less tired and farther along in the kaizen event. Nevertheless, the clock was ticking, so the teams kept moving.

The teams worked mostly on their own, with a few breaks for meaningless meetings with the consultant. During these meetings, the consultant asked for status reports and gave advice on what the next steps should be. When the consultant offered a smart suggestion, it was either one that had already been implemented by the teams or one that had been mentioned by an employee. Members of upper management, who had not paid attention when a suggestion was originally given, now saw the suggestion as valuable because it had been offered by the consultant. Funny how that works.

With two days completed, the teams were progressing much more smoothly, but, even so, many of the employees were unhappy with this kaizen event. Everyone pushed ahead.

Days 3 and 4 found us facing some of the same challenges. The consultant continually redirected the teams with useless advice. It sometimes appeared that he was trying to prove his worth and justify his price. But each kaizen team had solid team members, and they were all making good decisions on their own. Many of them relied on my input, because I was experienced in kaizen events and believed in a different approach to implementation.

Every night, upper management and the consultant left for dinner at approximately 4:30 p.m., and the teams stayed late, continuing to work. Working late at night is another older kaizen approach, one that is quickly losing its appeal. The old approach requires long days and evenings because no up-front planning is allowed. In contrast, preparing for kaizen events in advance leaves plenty for the team to do during the event but allows for a smoother implementation and avoids long working hours. Working the teams sixteen hours a day during kaizen events does not instill enthusiasm and excitement, nor does it bring about dramatic change in the company culture.

When Thursday arrived, the teams were finishing up their areas. Each team had made improvements to flow, workstation design, inventory quantities, 5S, and standard work. The teams were asked to arrive early on Friday morning to begin assembling their reports. It was a mad scramble. The consultant wanted all the presentations ready by 9:00 a.m. so that he could catch an early flight home.

Each team presented its project, and the company was happy. As always, there were some unfinished items, but the event was considered a success. Directly following the presentations, the plant manager announced that the consultant wanted to tour all the areas. This was a surprise to the teams. The team members ran off to clean up their areas, and chaos ensued. The tour was very fast. The consultant quickly walked through each area and then prepared for his departure. He mentioned how hard everyone had worked and wished us luck in preparing for the next event, which would be sometime in June.

I was frustrated with X-Corp’s first approach to a kaizen event. From my perspective, it appeared that the company was simply trying to impress the consultant rather than use him for advice.

Most of the team members, too, were unhappy with the consultant, the company, and their bosses. They were tired and simply wanted to go home for the weekend. They were relieved it was over.

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