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Mark Rosenthal


‘95 Theses’ on Kaizen Events and the TPS

Nailing down the key concepts

Published: Wednesday, October 19, 2022 - 11:03

Once again I’m going through old files. Looking back at my notes from 2005, I believe I was thinking about nailing these points to a church door somewhere in the company. That actually isn’t a bad analogy because I was advocating a pretty dramatic shift in the role of the kaizen workshop leaders.

This was written four years before I first encountered the book Toyota Kata (McGraw-Hill, 2009) and reflected on my experience as a lean director operating within a $2 billion slice of a global manufacturing company. What reading Toyota Kata did for me was to solidify what I wrote below and provide a structure for actually doing it.

Kaizen events

Kaizen events (or whatever we want to call the traditional weeklong activity) can be a useful tool when used in the context of an overall plan, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to implement our operating system.

There are times when any specific tool is appropriate. There are no universal tools, kaizen tools included.

The “Operational Excellence” pillar of our business system is keyed in leadership behavior, not implementation of tools. The tools serve only to provide context for leaders to rapidly see what is happening and the means to immediately respond to problems.

Thus, focusing on implementing the tools of the Toyota Production System (TPS)—takt time, flow, pull, etc.—outside of the immediate response and problem-solving context is an exercise that expends energy and gains very little sustainable change, whether it is done in a weeklong intense event or not.

However, in my experience, organizations that take a deliberate and steady approach to implementation have had more success putting the sustaining mechanisms into place. While it is sometimes necessary to bring teams together for a few days at times to solve a specific problem, or to develop a radically different approach, these efforts tend to be more focused than the typical kaizen week I see.

When the kaizen week is scheduled first, and the organization looks for what needs improving, it is a symptom of ineffective use of the tool.

In general, a kaizen event, whether it is a week, a month, or even just a few minutes, must be focused on solving specific problems that are impeding flow or are barriers to the next level of performance. Without this focus, there is no association with the necessities of the business, and no context for the gains.

There are a few simple countermeasures that can be applied to a kaizen week activity that focus the participants much more tightly on learning the critical thinking.

Improvement can, and must, take many forms. A weeklong kaizen activity is but one. It is expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive, and should be used deliberately only when simpler approaches have failed to solve the problem.

Classes and courses ≠ teaching and learning

Bluntly, even though we preach “plan-do-check-act” (PDCA) and say we understand it, we are not applying PDCA in our educational approach.

Some fundamental tenets:
• All of our teaching should be contextual and focused on what skill or knowledge is required to clear the next barrier to flow or performance.
• The above does not rule out teaching fundamental theory. But fundamental theory must be immediately translated into actions and put into practice or it will never be more than a nice discussion.

The vast majority of our teaching should be experiential and based in real-world situations, solving actual problems vs. examples and contrived exercises.

We want to move our teaching toward an ideal state (a true north in our approach) where it is:
• Socratic—focusing people on the key questions
• Experiential—learning by application to solve real problems and gain experience and confidence that the concepts translate to the real world

Thus, education and training are used by leadership to help people clear the barriers and problems that block progress toward higher levels of performance.

As far as I can determine, the “Toyota Way” of teaching is similar to this model.


The content of training is as critical as the way it is delivered.

The objective is to shift people’s thinking and, in so doing, shift day-to-day behavior as people make operational decisions. The target audience for all of our efforts is the people who make decisions that affect our direction and performance. This is anyone in any position of leadership, at any level of the company—from a team leader on the shop floor to the CEO.

The key is to embed the structure of applying PDCA to all of our content. For example:
• The “rules-in-use” in Steven Spear’s research (“Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” and other related publications)
• Every tool and technique we teach, or should teach, is some application of the above. (The rules in use include problem detection, response, and problem solving.) I have yet to encounter an improvement tool or technique that doesn’t fit this model.

This approach fundamentally reframes the concept of “problem” and what should be done about it.

The TPS (in its pure state) is a process that delivers a continuous stream of problems to be solved to the only component of the system that can think: the people. This is how people are engaged, and this is what makes it a “people-based system.” Leave this out, and “people-based system” is just a hollow term. Nearly every discussion talks about how important people are, but then dives right into technical topics without covering how people are actually engaged—outside the context of a weeklong kaizen.

The role of workshop leaders

No one has disputed the critical make-or-break role played by line leadership, not only in implementation but even more so in sustaining.

Workshop leaders are generally taught to plan and lead workshops. The emphasis is on the weeklong workshop logistics; on presenting modules in classroom instruction; and on the skills to facilitate a team through the process of making rather dramatic shop-floor improvements.

In a typical implementation scenario—which is not saying it happens here—it is the workshop leaders who: go to the work area; do the observations (usually without a lot of skilled mentoring, and usually just to collect cycle times); build the balance charts and combination sheets; plan what will be changed and how it will be changed; and set objectives, targets, and boundaries.

They are the most visible leadership of the teams during the week, and they are the ones tracking and pushing follow-up and completion of open kaizen newspaper items.

The effect of this (which is fairly consistent across companies) is:
• The standard work tools are something workshop leaders use during improvement events.
• Cycle times, observations, and looking for improvement opportunities is the domain of the workshop leaders.

Actually guiding the team members through the problem-solving process is the job of the workshop leaders. The supervisors and managers are there as team members to learn from this outside expert.

The question is: Who is responsible to coach the line leaders through the process of handling the problems that the TPS is designed to surface in operation?

Once the basic flows are in place, there will be a stream of problems revealed. Those problems will either be seen or not seen. If problems are seen, they will either be dealt with quickly, following good thinking, or they will be accommodated so they go back to being unseen. This is a critical crossroad for the organization—and it is the behavior of the first and second line leaders, and the support they get from their leaders, that most influences whether the system backslides or continues to get better and better.

Note: There is no middle ground. One-piece-flow really can’t sustain in a stable state. It is either improving or getting worse. It isn’t designed to stay still, and it won’t. Continuous intervention is required for stability, and that intervention is what improves it.

Who teaches the leaders to do this?

Each leader must have a coach, by name, who can, and will, always challenge the thinking and solutions to problems against a specific thinking structure.

This is the primary role for the kaizen promotion office. The way to do this is through applying a few core skills—and skills can be taught.

We should:
• Include this vital role in the expectations of a “workshop leader” to take them closer to being “coordinators” in the Toyota factory startup model.
• Provide these “coordinators” with a specific support process so they know that they can quickly get assistance if they feel they are in over their heads.

The role of that assistance is not to step in and solve the problem. It is to take the opportunity to teach both the workshop leader and the area manager by guiding them through solving the problem.

My experience with this concept is that teaching these skills to someone is not as difficult as most people assume. The basics of observing and seeing flows can be taught over a few days to someone who is motivated to learn. The skill of teaching by asking questions can be accelerated from the “pure” method by telling them what is being done and why. This isn’t about the answers; it is about learning the questions.

Application and good teaching can easily be verified by checking the leader’s (the student’s) level of skill and behavior. (The senior teacher checks the teacher by checking the student—just as the area supervisor checks the team leader’s teaching by verifying the standard work on the shop floor.)

None of these is an advanced topic. These are just basics. Once a good context is established in people’s minds, my experience suggests that the Toyota Production System is no longer counterintuitive. The tools and techniques that at first seemed alien now make sense.


About The Author

Mark Rosenthal’s picture

Mark Rosenthal

Mark Rosenthal is an experienced lean manufacturing/quality director and manager with more than 20 years of experience implementing continuous improvement in diverse organizations. He brings deep understanding of the Toyota Production System and a proven ability to see any organization’s potential. Rosenthal is a change agent who facilitates the process of discovery to quickly make an impact on the way people think, enabling them to cut to the core issues and get things moving by engaging the entire team to develop solutions that affect the bottom line.