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Kevin Meyer

Quality Insider

Leadership: the Force Multiplier of Kaizen

Imagine the results of kaizen at the C-level

Published: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 17:14

Electronic manufacturer Jabil’s website promotes its commitment to lean, especially its report showing the following:

• 13,000 kaizen events so far in 2013
• 322,000 completed in 2012
• 9,500 Lean Bronze practitioners
• More than 200 Six Sigma Black Belts

That truly is impressive, and I happen to know something about Jabil and know it is real. Those numbers are driving significant increases in shareholder value—which is a result of creating value for its customers. They are committed to lean, and it starts at the top leadership levels.

Toyota and other lean-driven companies are similar. Large numbers of kaizen events—or just plain improvements—drive productivity improvements. In the case of Toyota it helps a labor-intensive factory in a high labor cost country be one of the company’s most efficient, without automation.

When I see huge numbers like those at Jabil, Toyota, and elsewhere, I have to wonder a bit. The average impact of an individual kaizen is presumably fairly small, but the cumulative effect is very large. It takes serious leadership commitment to create a culture and environment where that can occur. I’m confident the leadership of such companies is directly involved in kaizen themselves.

Think about the other companies just starting down the lean journey, or those struggling to gain momentum. We know how absolutely critical leadership is at that time. Lean can start and even blossom from within the organization, but to truly succeed its value must be recognized, embraced, and driven from the top: the CEO, president, owner, or other C-level types. If it’s not, then the tough calls on resource commitments, priorities, and keeping the faith when the inevitable early results aren’t immediately financially favorable, will not be made. And the lean transformation will fizzle and stall.

But leadership can also be a force multiplier of the kaizen effect. While tens or hundreds or even thousands of small kaizen events are happening throughout the bowels of an organization, imagine the impact of just a handful of kaizen events at the executive and especially CEO level. Instead of saving a thousand bucks here and there—which can definitely add up—a CEO that effectively practices kaizen can save millions or create millions in customer and shareholder value. I’m thinking of kaizen events that proactively identify a new market instead of reactively chasing competitors, plug a cash drain at an ineffective operation so the cash can be invested elsewhere, or implement an effective corporate training program that allows the company to better leverage the brains of its employees.

Saving a few minutes or dollars here and there is very important, especially when multiplied by all of the potential improvements in an organization. Saving or creating a few million dollars by making the really big improvements is equally important.

And that, just as with driving and cultivating the lean journey itself, takes leadership: leadership that commits to lean as a priority, that engages daily with the entire organization, that sets and continually reinforces a clear, concise vision of the ideal future state. I have come across many companies where the employees get it, and are trying to create a lean transformation, but the executive leadership is disengaged or even overtly skeptical. It’s sad. I know where those organizations will be in a few years.

Forgetting about the “respect for people pillar” of lean will cause a lean transformation to fail. Leadership that doesn’t truly commit to and engage with the lean transformation will also cause it to stagnate and fail. But leadership, top leadership, that truly commits to the lean journey and leverages the power of people, can create incredible value. Just ask Jabil.

This column first appeared June 14, 2013, on the Evolving Excellence blog.

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About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.