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Kaizen has been hailed as a quick cure-all for any ailing business problem. Companies like Toyota, Bacardi, and Nestle use kaizen in their businesses. Yet for some companies, the go-to approach is to lock employees in a conference room with the hopes of arriving at a better solution before they are released. Is kaizen the panacea it claims to be, or simply an excuse to bring in lunch?

In Japanese, “kaizen” means improvement. Dissecting its Kanji reveals change (kai) is good (zen), more or less. The Kaizen approach focuses on small improvements under the theory that over time, these small changes could result in massive benefits to a business.

The concept of kaizen was first introduced during World War II under a United States program called “Training Within Industry,” or TWI. The TWI group encouraged small, incremental improvements over transformational changes. Eventually, W. Edwards Deming (the management consultant responsible for TWI) was recognized by the Emperor of Japan for introducing the concept of kaizen to the Japanese workforce.

A typical kaizen master leads the room through six steps, including:

  1. Establishing the reason for the workshop. Why are we here? What is the scope?
  2. Understanding the current state
  3. Serving boxed lunch
  4. Developing a future state vision
  5. Creating a timeline and ownership for each step
  6. Recognizing everyone’s participation with a ribbon

Kaizen is commonly used in manufacturing companies since the concept is an essential part of lean manufacturing and is associated with the Toyota Production System (TPS). The TPS is well-known for defining standards of eliminating waste in production and unnecessary stress in the workplace. However, any industry, any job function or process, can benefit from kaizen.

When Is Kaizen Beneficial?

  • It is seen as a proactive approach to identifying incremental improvements
  • There’s a shared mentality that the current state can always be improved upon
  • Continuous improvement is embedded in company culture
  • It is supported by upper management
  • Employees have an outlet to submit kaizen suggestions

The main drawback to a kaizen event is groupthink. Basically our minds become influenced and confined to the ideas generated in a group. The loudest person in the room generally drives the conversation. The Harvard Business Review describes the benefits of convergence and divergence well: in a group session, individuals need some time to brainstorm ideas on their own before coming back to the larger group. Once the group is reunited, the individual ideas are discussed and narrowed. The process continues until a solution is achieved. We find that when people feel they have a direct impact on company change, they are more likely to participate in and advocate change.

Because kaizen is based on the idea of continuous improvement, it is most effective for small, incremental changes. Standardizing templates for Accounts Receivable or updating a work ticket are great challenges for kaizen to address.

A Different Approach: The ACE Method

For more complex business problems or if groupthink becomes an issue, there is a different approach: the ACE Method. ACE (accelerate, collaborate, and execute) is a workshop that effectively finds solutions for anything from brainstorming a new company logo to a complete overhaul of the company’s bid-to-bill process.

Trenegy developed the ACE Method to address problems quickly. A typical workshop lasts about two weeks and a clear roadmap for action is developed in that time. To combat groupthink, ACE employs a trained moderator to encourage that there are no bad ideas. Even a thought that seems unhelpful initially could spark a brilliant idea in another participant. ACE uses convergence and divergence, as the Harvard Business Review advises, to brainstorm ideas and improve upon them.

Think of kaizen as a way to tackle the small issues and ACE as a way to tackle larger challenges, like mergers. Both methods have their advantages. And both are worth far more than just a free lunch!

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