Kaizen is Usually a Team Sport

Crew looking leftLast Thursday, Joe Swartz and I presented about “Kaizen Coaching” at the annual Shingo Institute Conference.

In the start of our breakout session, I made a point I usually make, something I learned from Norman Bodek:

“A suggestion is something for you to do,
an idea is something I can do.”

The point is that a suggestion is often just thrown at the manager as something for them to do. The employee is powerless, unfortunately, to do anything about the problem they want to solve, even if they would want to.

In contrast, an idea is something that I can at least help implement. Most of the time, employees can help implement improvements in a Kaizen system, if they don’t completely lead it. Sometimes, however, a manager must step in and help as a servant leader. In the old suggestion box system, it was assumed employees were incapable. That mindset changes in Kaizen.

But, I got an interesting question in the hallway after the talk.

I was asked, essentially:

“I really liked your talk, but I’m concerned about one thing. You make it seem that Kaizen is for individuals, but we teach that it’s about small teams… how is that consistent?”

I thanked him for the question. I wish he had asked it in the main room during the Q&A period, as he might not have been the only one to get the wrong impression. An audience member getting the wrong impression is certainly the fault of the speakers. We need to communicate more clearly.

I explained that I was sorry that we didn’t explain things well,

A Kaizen idea, whether it’s the identification of a problem or a proposed countermeasure, usually starts with one person.

Then, things go through the full Kaizen process:

  1. Find problems or ideas
  2. Discuss them in the team
  3. Test and implement them
  4. Document what was done
  5. Share what was done with others

The second step, the discussion, is where things often turn from an individual effort to a team sport. We talk about the problem to clarify what we are trying to fix. We discuss to see if there’s a quick fix or if root cause analysis is needed. Most of the way, it’s a team effort, even if that team is just two or three people.

Joe and I talked about this and his reflection was that many of the Kaizen examples shown only had one name listed in the recognition box. It’s definitely a good practice to share recognition widely and to have multiple names on a Kaizen report (as shown in this example).

We will do better next time in our presentation… continuously improving.

We need to make sure that we make it clear that Kaizen is most always a team sport. Even the simple time clock Kaizen that I did before the talk was something I discussed with Joe. Even that small improvement wasn’t a solo effort.

Within a department or a team, we often see individuals who play different roles on the team.

  1. Some people are great at pointing out problems
  2. Others are fantastic at figuring out who should work on a Kaizen
  3. Some are really good at doing root cause analysis, when needed
  4. Others do a super job of brainstorming solutions or countermeasures
  5. Some are take charge people and can get things implemented
  6. Others are excellent at coaching others and drawing out ideas from others
  7. Some are very skilled at tabulating cost savings and financial benefits
  8. Others are exceptional at succinctly documenting and summarizing what was done

Sometimes, a Kaizen will be done by one person from start to finish, but they should talk to others along the way. Other times, the responsibility for different parts of the Kaizen process will be handed off from one person to another.

Our team needs to be rowing in the same direction. We all have a role to play. Some are strong. Some are little, but have big voices. That’s why Kaizen is most effective as a team sport.


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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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