Book Review: "Kaizen Express"

I have always learned a lot from John Shook. As I’ve blogged about before, I’ve seen John present about TPS and management (leadership, really) a few times and probably learn more “insights per hour” than anyone else in the Lean world, as he has a way of communication concepts and methods in a way that’s easy to relate to and share with others.

His most recent book, co-authored with Toshiko Narusawa, published by the Lean Enterprise Institute, is “Kaizen Express: Fundamentals for Your Lean Journey.” It is also available from Amazon.com, if you prefer.

In an era where many think we’ve “moved beyond tools,” we often talk about management and culture — high level goals. But tools and fundamentals should not be forgotten. Kaizen Express is a “back to basics” primer on the Toyota Production System. Since John was one of the first Americans to work for Toyota in Japan, this book is pretty closely “straight from the source” as much as any recent publication.

Personally, I loved the book. I’ve been reading books about Lean since 1995 when I started my own journeys in implementation. This book is a nice compilation of lean basics that you might find in the books from Ohno and Shingo. There are gems scattered throughout, some ideas you might have already known, plus a few ideas that were new to me or stated in a new way.

Who is this Book Best Suited For?

Do I recommend this book for you? Well, it depends. If you’re like myself — experienced with Lean, an engineer, a bit of a “Lean Geek” then this will find a welcome place on your bookshelf as a reference and you’ll enjoy reading it. The Japanese style cartoons are nice visuals that will remind you of Toyota publications.

If you’re implementing Lean in a factory, then this will provide a ready reference. There are many details about topics like Kanban, Heijunka, and “Zone Control” that will prove useful. There are many templates, forms, and examples that the authors encourage you to use (including blank templates in the back of the book). There are also training slides in the back of the book that you are encouraged to use in your workplace (or adapt).

Some downsides of the book — it is probably best suited for a manufacturing environment, given the examples and scenarios that are given. While the general history and management points are very transferrable (more on this later in the review), the book might be a bit off-putting to those in services or healthcare settings. Now, if you’re like Dr. Sami Bahri, you might enjoy reading this in an open-minded sense of wanting to read the basics so you can figure out for yourself “does this idea apply… and how?” This is the process that Dr. Bahri went through, reading the original Ohno and Shingo texts, asking how to apply the ideas to dentistry. Not everybody has that patience, so I would only give this book to someone in healthcare if they thought like our friend “the Lean Dentist.”

Additionally, the book is a translation from a Japanese text. The Japanese and English are presented side-by-side in the text and the diagrams/pictures. This was done, the authors explain, to have one global edition of the book, since English is such a common business language. To some, the Japanese will only feed into the “well we’re different, TPS is only for Japanese companies” mindset that unfortunately appears in some organizations. So make sure your organization is open minded to seeing so much Japanese.

For these reasons, this proabably isn’t an “introduction to Lean” book for most readers. I think the book, as great as it is, is best suited for experienced professionals and those who have already been learning about Lean and have been implementing it. That’s not a criticism of the book, but I’m trying to give some guidance around how it might best be used.

Highlights of the Book:

Like I said, there are many gems in this outstanding book.

Page 14 has a great discussion about a primary benefit of kaizen being growth and new opportunties for employees.

“But surely nobody will be willing to support kaizen if it results in a loss of employment.”

The authors give practical suggestions beyond just not laying people off. They emphasize having a training development approach and planning so employees can get new experiences or move into management. One of my favorite examples with Lean in a hospital was seeing an experienced employee finally WANT to become a manager (because the culture was changing) and because his time had been freed up through Lean and kaizen.

“… the purpose of kaizen is to make processes better and to develop people’s abilities, not to simply reduce the number of operators.”

Now that’s a great universal point and this book makes it well.

Page 23 has a great illustration and description of “fake flow” versus “pure flow.” In fake flow, we’ve just rearranged the machines, but we still have batches and uneven production. In pure flow, we’ve taken steps to ensure true single piece flow. Or, as the book rightfully points out, single piece OR “small consistent batches.” Single piece flow isn’t an absolute, it’s an ideal.

Page 25 has a nice discussion about “Why a U-shape” for a production cell?

In the discussion of Heijunka (level loaded), on page 45, there’s a nice discussion of how uneven workloads can cause:

“..strain, which corrodes safety and morale.”

So again, the methods are brought back to people and employees, not just the benefit to the company or customers.

I love the description and discussion of Standardized Work in the book:

See, standardized work is NOT about telling people what to do or shutting your brain off at the door. This section should be great ammunition in discussions about whether you can or should standardize things in healthcare or other settings.

Section 5 on “The Lean Journey” has a discussion of Toyota history and what is called “Genryo” or “genryo management.” This refers to Toyota’s need to be successful in the face of limited resources, to be frugal and creative. That’s a similar motivation as we have in healthcare today — not just throwing money at problems, but being successful in trying economic circumstances.

One challenging idea for healthcare readers: part of genryo management involves what we could call capital linearity and labor linearity. Instead of building one huge factory (or hospital) that opens all at once, can we scale up the factory over time by adding chunks of capacity? Ironically, I’ve read recently about how Honda is better at that, lately, than Toyota. By labor linearity, we want processes where we can add and remove people as customer volumes change. Hospitals often gain this by “sending people home early.” Does this method, which hurts people’s paychecks, show “respect for people?” Can we find other ways of using people’s time for kaizen if they have no patient work to do?

So that ties into the final part of the book on kaizen and employee engagement. This is the most transferrable chapter of the whole book. I’d wholeheartedly recommend this chapter to those in healthcare. It talks about why employee involvement is “critical” in general and for implementing lean.

“A lean conversion may be started as a top-down process in many companies. However, nobody can realize it by him/herself and any new system cannot run well only by orders from above.”

The book describes Toyota’s respect for people and belief in people by highlighting that most everybody can contribute to kaizen. The authors emphasize the need for classroom training AND practical “learn by doing.” They also point out that the classic 5-day kaizen workshop isn’t always the best format for all learning for all problems.

There’s also a very nice back-and-forth discussion on page 102 about engaging employees and asking questions when they don’t agree with changes. If they want to change back from the U-shaped cell, how do you respond? Hint — it’s not a matter of crushing the revolution, instead you need to work with people and listen.

The final section is beautifully labeled as “Respecting People Is Always The Basis of Your Kaizen (How do we change from “command” to “committment”?).

Final thoughts — great book, very welcome addition to the lean literature. Great insights, but also very practical in a “how to” sense with the forms, templates, and training slides (like the one below) that are made available for use.

Other Reviews:

Conflict of interest disclosure: I work for the publisher of this book, the Lean Enterprise Institute, but played no role in its development. The amazon.com link is an “affiliate” link for which I earn a royalty.


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Now Available – The updated, expanded, and revised 3rd Edition of Mark Graban’s Shingo Research Award-Winning Book Lean Hospitals: Improving Quality, Patient Safety, and Employee Engagement. You can buy the book today, including signed copies from the author.


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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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