Big Kaizen or Small Kaizen?

Jon Miller at Gemba Panta Rei, poses, in my opinion, one of the most thought provoking questions in the field of Lean management:


Essentially, the question is which should we choose: Big Kaizen or Small Kaizen?

In my experience, the right answer is both. That is a simple answer though. Here is some more depth to this essential question and why we should all attempt to answer it as part of our strategy in our respective companies:

Jon's question puts us in a predicament when considering the merits of both Big and Small Kaizen. Let's call them Big K and small k for now. On one hand, you get big improvements with big results. On the other hand, you get many small improvements with many small results that when considered as a whole is practically equal to the value of Big K. This reasoning may tend to lead us to the conclusion: "what's the difference?"

Well, like many things in Lean, like waste - it's the things you don't see that make all the difference.

1) Big K pros

  • Noticeable fast results

  • Big bang for your buck

  • Since Big K's are usually run in a pilot mode, makes for great showcase of Lean tools and results in action.

  • Sometimes easy to replicate in other areas.
2) Big K cons

  • Requires a deep understanding of the problem prior to the event.

  • As a lean company matures, it is more difficult to find those BIG problems that require BIG K.

  • Hard to sustain, UNLESS physically changed things so that they are irreversible. (i.e., Mistake Proofing)

  • If not sustained, money is wasted.

  • Hard to teach others about the changes since they didn't experience it (i.e. learn it) for themselves.

  • Sometimes hard to replicate in other areas.

  • Not all Big K participants are involved in the event. Often, wallflowers are left behind in the real learning that should take place.
That's just a short list, there are more I'm sure you can add.

3) Small k cons

  • Some ideas seem frivolous and a waste of time.

  • Takes time to see results.

  • Requires intense management support at ALL levels.

  • Requires EVERYONE's involvement. Tough to pull off.
4) Small k pros

  • EVERYONE is involved.

  • Easy to teach people when you are focusing on small things.

  • Individuals OWN their improvements because it is their idea. Sustainment is easier.

  • Improvements get better over time as people see waste more clearly.

  • Easier to support small k's versus BIG K's.
I'm a BIG proponent of the small k approach. Involvement at all levels is superior to the typical Kaizen Event approach. Improvements tend to sustain themselves - because the person who put the idea in place uses it as part of their work. Also, it easier for management to support by adopting a questioning attitude:

"What is the problem?"
"Do you know what caused it?"
"No? Can you find out?"
"Can I help in anyway?"
"Do you have any ideas about how to eliminate that problem?"
"Any ideas how to make it easier? Safer?"

Asking simple questions about small problems is a lot easier for ALL managers to do on a daily basis instead of relying on ONE Lean manager struggling to "sustain" many Big K's that most people haven't really bought into anyway. My argument is that a "sustainment" industry is growing in the management consulting world that would largely vanish if managers simply asked employees for their ideas and devised a system to get them into action.

I believe that the figures in Jon Miller's graphic help us ask the right question, but what that graph doesn't show is the typical backsliding that occurs with Big K. His graph shows the plan. The following graph shows what normally happens:

Yes, some backsliding occurs with small k ideas. But the slide is small and doesn't affect the overall improvement trend. Plus, not all small k ideas are big impact. In fact, the goal of kaizen is to get involvement so that we as leaders have opportunities to teach others about how to improve, how to learn, and to upgrade the overall problem solving skill set of our people. In contrast, Big K falls far short of this involvement ideal, because it is a project, management and results oriented gaining us little buy-in from EVERYONE - unless it makes every one's job easier, safer or better. For example, holding a kaizen event to install a kanban pull system often doesn't achieve this - it only achieves the tactical goal of reducing inventory. This is why it is sometimes difficult to sustain the gains made in Big K events.

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At February 20, 2009 at 10:15 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent point in establishing and changing a culture. The knowledge and educational level of many plants covers a very broad range of capabilities. We're a great proponent of small K for the very reasons you mentioned. Big K after a couple of years and a lean leader who moves on sets the stage for wasted effort. Small k engages team members towards a DNA change. Great perspective.

At August 20, 2015 at 6:14 AM , Blogger John Robert said...

Dear Bryan Lund, I really appreciate your spirit in spreading this beautiful knowledge which you have shared, this can help us from all perspectives related to culture , lean systems and kaizen as well, keep writing.. thanks

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At August 22, 2016 at 1:59 AM , Blogger Naviya Nair said...

I have read your blog its very attractive and impressive. I like it your blog.
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At September 16, 2016 at 10:14 AM , Blogger Inzinc Consulting India said...

Very informative and useful blog.
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At December 23, 2016 at 6:39 AM , Anonymous kaizen training said...

Nice blog. Kaizen means "improvement" - "Kai" means change/make better, and "Zen" means good. Kaizen is the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement by all the employees in an organization so that they perform their tasks a little better each day.


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