A study of kaizen events, now supported by the National Science Foundation, has been initiated by researchers at Oregon State University and Virginia Tech. The team of industrial engineering researchers has partnered with nine different organizations to identify kaizen event factors most critical to short-term and long-term performance improvement.

Kaizen events are focused and structured improvement projects, using a dedicated cross-functional team to improve a targeted work area, with specific goals, in an accelerated timeframe. They most often are conducted in a three- to five-day workshop setting, although they may be somewhat shorter or longer in duration. Kaizen event teams apply structured process tools and human creativity with a goal of substantially improving the performance of the work area, process or product.

Many organizations report promising initial results from kaizen events, and proponents claim their use will also lead to the creation of a culture of continual improvement. Some organizations seem to be able to sustain improved levels of performance.

Many, however, find that within six months to one year, work area performance has degraded, sometimes even to pre-event performance levels. Both consultants and industry leaders acknowledge that even in companies where events are generally successful, unsuccessful events (for example, few significant improvements were made, even initially) are not uncommon.

Kaizen event framework
As part of the research at Oregon State and Virginia Tech, a framework for categorizing kaizen event processes was developed. It can be used to guide the design of kaizen events by helping organizations identify strengths and opportunities for improvement for both individual events and a kaizen event program as a whole.

By evaluating the current maturity of organizational processes against the kaizen event framework, organizations can identify aspects of kaizen event design and management in need of improvement. In addition, by examining the practices of other organizations, leaders can identify specific ways to improve their own kaizen event programs.

The kaizen event framework is organized around three categories of kaizen event processes — planning, implementing and sustaining. A fourth category of processes — organizational support — relates to the management of the kaizen event program as a whole.

1. Planning processes provide organizations with a clear priority and rationale for supporting the kaizen events that will have the most impact, and for establishing the initial scope of the intended outcomes of these events. Planning encompasses three critical process areas:

    1. Identifying candidates for kaizen events
    2. Selecting between alternative candidates
    3. Defining the kaizen event scope

2. Implementing processes focus on a specific event once it has been defined. These processes are conducted before, during and after an event. The four process areas included in implementation are:

    1. Preparing for the event
    2. Executing the event
    3. Conducting follow-up actions
    4. Deploying improvements more broadly following the event

3. Sustaining encompasses performance reviews, dissemination of results and lessons learned and standardization of improvement activities.

4. Organizational support includes employee training and education, kaizen event program management and employee motivation.

Using the framework
To illustrate how the framework can be applied, our team analyzed a kaizen event in one of the nine participating organizations, focusing primarily on the impact of planning and implementation processes.

The organization is a secondary wood products manufacturer with multiple manufacturing locations. The organization began using kaizen events in this particular plant in 1998 and continues to use kaizen events on a regular basis, particularly within manufacturing operations.

The kaizen event studied was focused on developing a floor layout for two new pieces of equipment – a press and a glue spreader. The general location for the equipment was decided before the event, while the kaizen team was responsible for the more detailed solution (such as figuring out how to fit the equipment into the prescribed space).

The pre-work (planning processes) used to determine the approximate location of the new equipment ahead of time was one unique characteristic of this event. As a result, the team started the event with a general solution, although many specific details about how to achieve the implementation remained unspecified. This seemed to impact several aspects of event implementation, including team member assessments of autonomy.

Team autonomy was rated on a survey instrument developed by the research team. In general, ratings indicated that the team believed that they were given a moderate degree of autonomy, neither low nor high. However, team autonomy ratings for other events in the organization indicated that most other teams felt they had been accorded a relatively high degree of autonomy. The lower rating indicated that the team felt it had less freedom in designing the solution during this event than other events in the organization.

Three survey measures related to implementation were evaluated before the start of the event – goal clarity, commitment to goals and goal difficulty. Goal difficulty was rated relatively low by the team. Goal clarity and commitment to goals, however, were rated quite high. Goal clarity reflects how well the kaizen event team’s improvement goals are clearly defined, and commitment to goals reflects the team’s perception of the need for the specific changes targeted by the kaizen event.

It appears that the planning processes used by the organization succeeded in communicating the objectives and need for the event, even though they may have resulted in lower levels of autonomy and an initial perception of the team that the kaizen event goals were not particularly difficult.

In terms of event execution, two interesting design factors were identified by the research team. First, only 2 percent of the overall time allocated for the kaizen event was spent in analysis/design, whereas 73 percent of the overall time was spent in implementation. Teams often spend much more of their time in design and analysis.

Second, as a result of the goals of the kaizen event (work area layout), no specific structured improvement tool was used by the kaizen event team. While the goals set for this kaizen event did not have measurable targets, it seemed that the team members and facilitator felt the overall event was a success. In addition, the facilitator rated the quality of team decision-making as very sound.

Being able to spend the vast majority of time in implementing, the team felt their efforts were effective. The perceived lower levels of goal difficulty and autonomy may be important predictors of other human resource outcomes.

The research team measured team member attitudes toward kaizen events, skill development and the impact of the event on the work area. The team ratings for these measures indicated that, in general, the team perceived positive event impact, both on themselves and the target work area. However, in general, the ratings were only somewhat positive, demonstrating tentative agreement, suggesting there may have been further, untapped potential for improvement of both the target work area and employee capabilities.

Using the research to better understand kaizen
These results show that design and impact of kaizen events can vary even in organizations with a long history of success in kaizen event usage. They underscore the tradeoffs leaders must make in designing kaizen events.

In particular, leaders need to look at the relationship between goal difficulty and scope. For instance, the relatively small event scope and the pre-specified general solution seemed to help the team spend more event time in implementation versus analysis/design. However, this design likely caused the team to feel they had less autonomy, and may have had lower impact on employee attitudes, skills and knowledge.

For events intended to rapidly implement improvements, small scope and pre-planning might be preferred. Meanwhile, for events meant primarily for training employees in lean concepts and tools, a larger scope might be better.

Although beyond the scope of this article, it is also important to consider what impact event planning and implementation decisions may have on sustainability of event outcomes.

Only by studying kaizen events across multiple organizations and across time can the full set of factors related to the planning, implementation, sustaining and support be identified. Through this research, managers can have much more concrete guidelines to help assure that their efforts will lead to both short-term and sustainable performance improvement.

This research is supported by the National Science Foundation under grant DMI 0451512. The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of leaders and team members in the organizations currently participating in this research.

About the authors:
Toni L. Doolen (doolen@engr.orst.edu) is an assistant professor in industrial and manufacturing engineering at Oregon State University. Her research is focused on manufacturing systems design, lean manufacturing and work group effectiveness.

Eileen Van Aken (evanaken@vt.edu) is associate professor and associate department head in industrial and systems engineering at Virginia Tech and director of the Enterprise Engineering Research Lab. Her research interests include performance measurement, organizational transformation, lean production and team-based work systems.

Jennifer Farris (jfarris@vt.edu) is a PhD candidate in industrial and systems engineering at Virginia Tech. In addition to lean production and kaizen events, her research interests include performance measurement, product development and project management.

June Worley (worleyju@orst.edu) is a PhD candidate in industrial and manufacturing engineering at Oregon State University. Her research interests include lean manufacturing, information systems engineering, systems analysis and human systems engineering.