Leeds Business School

Using the ‘Kaizen model’ to develop process improvement practices

Our previous blog identified what were ‘initialising’ practices to support the development of process improvement capability, this time we examine how this could be done based on some recent research conducted at Leeds Business School.

The exterior of the Rose Bowl entrance, showing the triangles around the bowl

Process Improvement teams are a common platform for organisations attempting process improvement and they are a common denominator in different improvement methodologies (lean, (six sigma, Business process re-engineering, Total Quality Management). They have typical characteristics as being formed from employees work in and around the process being considered, they are cross functional, and often utilise an improvement expert as a facilitator. They tend to extend in time over a sequence of traditional organisational meetings. However, our research shows that these modes of participatory problem solving can swiftly result in people becoming passive, and unempowered to critically analyse the process and deliver meaningful change.

The alternative option can be to hold what are termed ‘Kaizen events’, or sometimes rapid improvement events (RIE). A reasonable definition of a Kaizen event (KE) (or rapid improvement event) is where frontline staff are brought together for one, or sometimes two, intensive sessions involving training, cross-functional teamwork, process mapping and problem-solving resulting in a follow-up action list.  The issues with this approach are that often the approach means only relatively simple issues can be addressed, process analysis and hence root cause determinations can be hindered by a lack of relevant process data. This mode also places greater emphasis of the skill requirement of the expert facilitator, and there are always issues of sustainability in following up actions stemming from the session.

The research project on looked at instances of both process improvement teams and Kaizen events in the same context. We found that there was a clear benefit of the ‘power of the event’ in empowering and enabling participants to both conduct their own process analysis and start to consider changes to their process. However, without a clear structure for next steps the initiatives diminished. Conversely members of the PI teams were much more passive in their work towards process change, which was too slow.

Therefore, the research identified a new hybrid mode of ‘Kaizen series’, a sequence of linked events, one which allows process improvement practices to be developed.

The key characteristic of a Kaizen series is to encourage empowerment via the ‘power of the event’, rather than process owners and workers becoming more passive participants, which might occur during a traditional improvement project. However, the nature of the sequential series provides an ongoing structure for participants to practise their improvement practices, mitigating some of the drawbacks for a traditional Kaizen ‘event’. The research showed that the Kaizen series approach mapped onto all the core process improvement practices identified in the previous blog.

The Kaizen series can be configured to align with any PI methodology, by defining the sequence of linked events in relation to the desired PI methodology, particularly useful for organisations with hybrid, niche or customised PI methodologies. The Kaizen series helps organisations where the time and availability of process workers are difficult to secure, who can’t afford a 2-3 full day extensive Kaizen event , or a long protracted improvement team approach.

This blog is part of a series written by Dr Ollie Jones. Read Dr Jones's blog on a nexus for businesses to analyse and improve processes.

Dr Oliver Jones

Principal Lecturer / Leeds Business School

Dr Ollie Jones joined Leeds Business School in 2004 and is a Principal Lecturer in Operations, Enterprise and Supply Chain Management. Ollie graduated in Manufacturing and Business from Cambridge University before working in a large multinational co-operation in a variety of sectors progressing from a graduate to senior management roles. He has been appointed a Teacher Fellow, in recognition of teaching excellence, and continues to works extensively with a different businesses in consultancy, particularly around productivity development, and is currently the research lead for his subject group.