Question: What practical advice would you offer to companies as they establish their Kaizen Promotion Offices?
Establishing a Kaizen Promotion Office (KPO) was a worthy Lean experiment and failed hypothesis of late 20th century Lean efforts in the West. As with any failed hypothesis, it’s highly useful if we take the lessons it provides and use them to adjust our approach as we pursue the target condition.
That target condition goes something like this: Improvement at every process every day that is aligned with strategic objectives.
What we learned from the 20th century KPO experiments is that establishing a KPO tends to make Lean the responsibility of staff specialists, and improvement only gets done on a project basis (since Lean staff can’t be everywhere at once). Brain research clearly shows that this kind of episodic approach won’t work for developing new skills and changing an organization’s habits/culture. If you only periodically conduct a training event and only periodically work on improvement and the rest of the time it’s business as usual, then the mindset you’re teaching is business as usual. On top of that the improvements you make will tend to backslide.
Outside of Toyota Lean has remained mostly a task-force activity rather than getting integrated into how an organization manages itself every day. What’s needed now for a Lean transfomation, or any change in organization culture, of course is that middle managers teach the new way every day. Every interaction between a manager and his or her people should radiate the desired pattern of thinking and acting. Toyota does this through a learner/coach relationship that is repeated up and down the organization, and by having an improvement kata for the managers (who are the coaches) to teach.
Middle managers may have more influence on an organization’s capability than any other group. Since middle managers are automatically teachers every day they are the primary actors who determine and perpetuate an organization’s culture. Middle managers are also a link between the strategic policy level of senior management and execution in the rest of the organization.
An answer to your question is that kaizen promotion is management’s job. Instead of a KPO, we need a small group that monitors and PDCAs the effort to have managers coach their people in the skills and mindset of continuous improvement through everyday practice of a scientific improvement kata. This means existing Lean staff, with its Lean experience, should reposition itself to help middle managers achieve their goals and be successful. The Lean team should operate on and through middle managers, not apply Lean to processes separately from them.
I think this is an emerging role — coaching the coaches — for the army of experienced Lean specialists that has been built up over the last 15 years. For more on this topic take a look at this SlideShare:
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