You Can Call It a Banana...

By Mike Niedenthal on October 20, 2016

I was asked the other day, “What’s the difference between a lean activity and a kaizen event?”  My first reaction was to give in to my often quoted answer, “It doesn’t really matter, you can call it a banana.” 

You see, I believe the problem isn’t with the terms “lean”, or “kaizen”.  If you are engaged in an effort to create more value with less waste, any descriptive will do, because I strongly feel that it’s about the systems or rules and not the tools or terminology.

Too many business leaders and managers attempt to define their improvement efforts within their definition of lean or kaizen.  They invest a significant amount of effort defining the terms or labels of their improvement efforts and then forcing their workforce to embrace them and use them, even if they don’t understand them.  Then, when the workforce just doesn’t seem to “get it,” they get upset or distraught and begin to think, in their estimation, that the program is failing.  The reality is that the workforce gets it, they just may not understand the terms being bandied about by an enlightened leadership team.

It’s not about what you call your improvement effort.  With that being said, however, first and foremost, it’s not a “lean program.”  Improvement is a never ending journey, not a short trip.  So, make every effort to avoid that concept – lean is forever, not for a discrete period of time.

My point is this, it’s not about the terminology and it’s definitely not about the tools.  A common problem with “lean thinkers” is that they often view lean as an assortment or collection of tools.  They’re more concerned about using the right tool than about using their problem solving abilities the right way.  They’re often more concerned about using the right “lean terms” than about communicating to their work teams using common sense language and terminology.  Focusing too much on the tools and terminology severely limits their view of lean and is a leading cause of failure in achieving the full potential of a continuous improvement effort. 

We want people doing things, not thinking about them.  The mantra goes like this, “Everybody, every day, everywhere, looking for improvement.”  If the words “lean” or ‘kaizen” cause problems, don’t use them.  Remember, the goal is to create more value with less waste, plain and simple.  So, don’t think about it, just do it.  Go to the place where the work is being done (the “Gemba”), engage the people doing the work and seek their ideas on how to make things better.  If they don’t know, help them learn to be “lean thinkers.”  What will it take to have a workforce of good problem solvers, a workforce that understands how to “see the waste,” and how to get to the real cause to solve it?  Answering those questions is a good first step to developing a systematic approach to your never ending journey to continuous improvement.

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