Finding time for Kaizen. That is a question is regularly get. Continual improvement sounds very interesting and promising as a concept, but when it gets practical, many organizations struggle to find a way to make it practical for themselves. They can’t see themselves sacrificing valuable time to improvement, as productivity will suffer. Or they expect Kaizen to happen all by itself. And when they find out that it isn’t happening, they dismiss the topic, and state that it doesn’t work in their environment and culture. Or they invest the task of Kaizen with a special group of elite improvement agents and find out that change is slow and produces little returns, after which the group is dismantled after the first financial pressure presents itself. So how do we need to organize for Kaizen?
Chronos and Kairos
Finding time for Kaizen. That is a question is regularly get. Continual improvement sounds very interesting and promising as a concept, but when it gets practical, many organizations struggle to find a way to make it practical for themselves. In the context of that question, it is useful to introduce the old ancient Greek concepts of time called Chronos and Kairos.
Chronos refers to the chronological, linear or sequential passing of time. Chronos is clock time. Chronos is what we are most familiar with.
Kairos, on the other hand, means the right, proper, appropriate, or opportune moment. It is the instant that needs to be grasped in order to have success. Kairos describes the moment when the time is ripe, so to say. It is the moment that something appropriate happens that cannot happen at ‘any time’, but only at ‘that time’.
I personally think Chronos and Kairos hold the key to Kaizen. To better explain, I will first explain why I always refer to continual improvement instead of continuous improvement, as most others do.
Continuous and Continual
Kaizen is not continuous, but continual. Continual means repeated but with breaks in between. Continuous means without interruption, as in a stream.
If improvement would be continuous, we would not have time to test our improvement ideas. We would not have the time to stabilize any newly created situation. We would operate under continuously changing rules, regulations, instructions, or standards. It would be impossible to verify the effect of our well-intended efforts, as too many factors would be changing all the time. So, there you have it, I don’t believe in continuous improvement.
Continual improvement is what we need to aim for. Improvements that are sufficiently apart in time to truly verify that the change is truly for the better. From that point of view, Kaizen is more like Kairos than Chronos. There is a specific moment when for Kaizen, and it is not ‘any time’.
This holds the key to organizing for Kaizen.
Chronos: Execute According to the Current Standard
In Lean, there is a time to execute according to standard. In fact, most of the time we are expected to respect the currently applicable standard. In doing so, we aim to achieve the best performance that is currently feasible.
Adhering to standard is important to understand the effects the current standard has. Not only do we want to see the performance impact a certain standard has, but we also want to understand how practical the standard is for the teams.
We also want to learn how the standard performs under different circumstances. A standard requires answers to ‘what-if’ situations. Situations that, ideally, would never happen, but in reality, they do (until their root cause is eliminated). In my experience, these ‘what-if’ situations cannot all be predicted beforehand. Only a handful can be thought up when starting off with a new way of working, but most will only be identified while ‘being in business’.
And before we turn to Kaizen, we need to understand the problem of the currently existing standard. We can only grasp the current situation by thoroughly studying it, and by applying the currently applicable standard as strict as possible. Only then we will be able to clearly see the problems related to the current standard and get ideas on improvement of that standard.
As you can see, there are many reasons for not changing standards continuously, and to allow time to pass while studying the current standard. This is the time to execute according to standard. This is the time to study and stabilize. This is about Chronos.
Kairos: Improve the Current Standard (Kaizen)
But at certain times, the results of our studies, our continuous evaluation of our ways of working and our standards, should lead to the elimination of the root causes underlying identified problems and to improvement of the standard. This happens at a certain time, as I indicate. It is not continuous, but continual, at a given interval. Kaizen is not about Chronos, it is about Kairos.
Now, some state that Kairos cannot be planned. It is an ad hoc moment in which an opportunity presents itself and you need to seize it in the moment. I, however, believe you can organize for Kairos. You should consciously create these moments in time, so that when the opportunity presents itself, you are there to capture it. You need to capture problems in real-time, in Chronos. And react to these situations in real-time as well, using standard reactions defined to handle these ‘what-if’ situations. But you need to deep-dive, perform problem-solving in the specific moments that you have created for such activities of your teams; in Kairos.
Organizing for Kaizen
The concepts of Kairos and Continual are the keys to organizing for Kaizen. Just as you need to organize the agenda of yourself as a leader (using a concept like Leader Standard Work), you need to support your teams in organizing themselves for Kaizen.
Teams (at any level of the organization and in any area) need specific moments in time (at different intervals) where they are allowed and able to discuss performance, problems and share their experiences with the current standards. And they should be allowed time to investigate root causes, solve their problems, and close the possible gap between current and desired performance. Without these moments, without Kairos, Kaizen will not be happening. You need to organize Kaizen.
Or are you one of these people expecting Kaizen to happen all by itself?