Dynamising the continuous improvement process (CIP)


August 2016


How often do employee suggestion schemes and improvement drives just fizzle out? Companies recognise that considerable scope for improvement lies in their operational processes, but that the many good ideas of their employees, and their brainpower, go to waste. So they implement a continuous improvement system and encourage their employees to adopt it. As best case, employees are informed about the new system and its methods, and in some cases post-boxes and noticeboards are installed and rewards are offered for successful improvement proposals.

From this moment, the system should run automatically, driven by employees’ innate motivation. This functions either not at all or only to a limited extent, resulting in an average number of changes implemented per year in Switzerland of 0.1 to 0.5 per employee.To successfully embed continuous improvement – or kaizen – in a company over the long term, the notion that CIP will run on its own must be abandoned. On the contrary, a successful kaizen approach is a top management-led culture of efficiency and change, which must be very well organised and orchestrated.

To embed kaizen effectively, the approach must be
  1. supported by management
  2. well embedded in the existing organisation
  3. expertly supported by a team of kaizen coaches
  4. operationalised by means of simple kaizen instruments and methods

The implementation of these four guiding principles can be demonstrated through two practical examples

Kaizen must be led by management and carried out by employees

A bottom-up approach such as kaizen, which turns employee ideas into concrete improvements, must not be confused with a laissez-faire approach. As with all strategic initiatives, kaizen must be led. It starts with a clear understanding of the method, the role of management and the conscious decision to apply kaizen in a consistent manner.

In the kaizen process, management may not cede responsibility for objectives, controls, information or decision-making processes. In specific terms, this means that every manager must ensure that kaizen takes place in their area of responsibility according to the targets (e.g. a kaizen board meeting every two weeks, six improvements per employee per year) and that any deviation will prompt intervention. In kaizen, responsibility for decision-making is delegated as far as possible to the base of the organisation. It’s important, however, to make quick and binding decisions on overriding proposals for management to set an example and to acknowledge the kaizen teams’ achievements through appreciation and support.

One of our clients, a large financial services provider, has implemented this in an exemplary fashion: clear objectives, tasks and decision-making competences have been defined and formally laid out in agreements on objectives at every management level. Kaizen is therefore a topic at every departmental and divisional meeting: individual team activities and results are reviewed, challenges are discussed and decisions made on overriding proposals. The managers obtain first-hand information regularly through so-called “gemba walks”; i.e. visits to kaizen board meetings (kaizen management principle of “go to gemba” – go to the scene). And, last but not least, the management team also holds kaizen board meetings and practises the basis of kaizen!

Kaizen requires organisational vessels and sound technical support

Time for improvements or efficiency projects is a scarce and valuable resource. Kaizen must generate benefits quickly. Otherwise, it will fail due to the resistance of the middle hierarchies within a company to take on additional tasks. Kaizen activities must therefore be carefully fitted into an existing organisation, orchestrated companywide and expertly supported. To be successful, the kaizen workshop, often seen as “organisationally easy”, must be soundly anchored and implemented each time with careful preparation and expert support.

One of our clients, a medium-sized service company, has broad, heterogeneous operational activities. The kaizen thought is embedded through a wide, concerted programme. Coaches were recruited from line and project management tasks from all divisions and trained to become kaizen masters. In parallel, at numerous short training courses (two to four hours) as many managers as possible across all hierarchies were informed about the possibilities and benefits of kaizen for their work. From this were drawn the areas of application for the improvement projects; i.e. blitz kaizen (one to two days) and kaizen workshops (four days).

The operational emphasis for this client is on the kaizen workshop vessel. This is based on a preliminary definition of a process task (profile) and an in-depth analysis of possible efficiency or quality issues by hypotheses. On this basis, and following a strict process, an inter-process project team identifies key sources of waste and derives possible countermeasures over the course of two days. Days three and four are dedicated to testing, operational organisation and the broadest possible implementation of these measures. At the end of the four days, the project team proudly presents its improvements and receives support from the steering committee to take them further.

The number of improvements implemented and the benefit derived from them, as well as employees’ participation, exceeded our expectations.

In summary

Kaizen is not a task for individual teams, but a holistic approach to be used at all levels of the company, to the CEO at the top. In order to have a sustainable impact on the efficiency and culture of an organisation, kaizen is built around a set of basic elements: binding objectives, dovetailed organisational vessels, control and reporting of improvement activities and successes, interest and commitment of superiors, appreciation of work done and expert support. It’s important that the kaizen elements find their place in the corporate system. In this way, kaizen becomes an effective instrument of work and change, a common optimisation language and a determining element of corporate culture.