Does Setting a Goal for Number of Kaizens Violate “Kaizen Spirit”?


In discussions of “kaizen” (the Japanese word that is translated to “continuous improvement” or “change for the better”), I often hear of organizations talk about getting goals and targets for the number of kaizen ideas that employees come up with in a year?

Long story short, the question for debate today: Does getting a goal or target violate the spirit of kaizen?

It's often thrown around that Japanese companies get two kaizen ideas per month from each employee and the average American company gets an idea from an employee once every seven years. I think Norman Bodek taught that and I heard it repeated in a presentation last week. I don't know the source, but it's probably directionally correct.

That said, I don't think “Japanese vs. American” is the right comparison point anymore, as many American factories get many ideas each month from an average employee. So let's compare companies with traditional management versus those with Lean management.

Why don't employees in traditional organizations give suggestions and ideas? It's not that these employees are lazy or less creative. There are many barriers to kaizen, as this post and the excellent comments detail.

The main barrier to kaizen probably is not “well, we didn't have a quota or goal for the number of ideas we were supposed to give.”

Traditionally managed companies, when they hear about kaizen are probably tempted to say “well, we'd better set a target for people, so we can hold them accountable, otherwise we won't get many ideas.”

But kaizen is supposed to be driven by intrinsic motivation – kaizen tends to be ideas that make your own work easier or allow you to do a better job for customers or patients. People should WANT to do kaizen, if we can only get out of their way and quit discouraging kaizen.

If we have the right environment, we shouldn't need a quota. Kaizen will just happen. And we'll get way more than one idea every seven years.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming warned us against setting targets and goals and quotas, as this post describes. He said we must substitute leadership. If you are a leader who wants more kaizen, don't set and communicate a higher target…. understand WHY people aren't submitting ideas. There's bound to be an organizational root cause to be found and addressed.

Some might say “but getting a target for kaizen doesn't mean we will punish people for not hitting the target.” I think we certainly shouldn't be punishing people for not hitting a target like that. So then why have that goal? Instead of measuring the number of kaizens, maybe we should be looking at our core performance measures that matter. If it is a hospital laboratory, the measures might include turnaround time for test results. Kaizen suggestions should help improve turnaround time, quality, productivity, etc.

Even without punishment, does the target get in the way? If a team had a contest offering a prize to the person or people who submitted the most ideas, this can turn into a different type of dysfunction. As the author Daniel H. Pink points out, having prizes and incentives can actually interfere with creative thinking and can hurt performance.

What are your thoughts on this?

  • is it reasonable to set a target or goal for the # of kaizen ideas submitted and implemented?
  • is a goal sometimes necessary to get the ball rolling?
  • are goals and targets almost always dysfunctional?
  • should we merely “substitute leadership” as Dr. Deming suggested?
  • how do we foster intrinsic motivation for kaizen?

Here is a post from Pascal Dennis on his view of “kaizen spirit.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleWhat’s Your Role in Hospital Quality?
Next articleSmart Error-Proofing in Fast Food: How In-N-Out Outsmarts Quiznos with Simple Design
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. is it reasonable to set a target or goal for the # of kaizen ideas submitted and implemented?
    No, it isn’t. People will hit the target and suggest as many ideas as you ask them to but, the ideas will likely turn out to be insignificant or just plain old gripes. I’ve seen this approach tried more than once. In one organization, they a set a target for the number of ideas but, no one did the math. When the ideas came flooding in, we had to set up a separate organization (non value added) to log and categorize the ideas. And yes, there were some good ideas but the majority were mindless dribble. An unintended consequence was that some people got angry because we never got around to timely implementing their ideas. The idea submitters had an expectation that if they submitted an idea it would be timely resolved.

    is a goal sometimes necessary to get the ball rolling?
    I don’t think you have to get goals to get the ball rolling, In another organization I worked with, the General Manager, as part of his monthly updates discussed the projects underway and the significance of the projects. He also met WEEKLY with the teams at one time to understand how the projects were progressing. Everyone wanted to be on the project teams to have face time with him. No goals were needed. Project ideas came flooding in.

    are goals and targets almost always dysfunctional?
    No, I think goals and targets can be useful it always to plan and see progress.

    should we merely “substitute leadership” as Dr. Deming suggested? No. Come on. LOL

    how do we foster intrinsic motivation for kaizen? Remove the fear of failing and foster a culture of controlled experimentation. Make it fun. I, for example, am a constant tweaker, experimenter. I like to try new, different approaches to almost everything I do. Some days I make whatever it is I experimented on got better, other days things get worst. But, oh well.

  2. I don’t see any value in setting goals for the number of kaizen events. It is typical MBA spreadsheet management thinking that has really no value in this instance. There are some times MBA spreadsheet management has limited, but actual, value (many alternatives would be better – but they still have some value).

    Goals can be useful to set the scope of solution you are aiming for but in general are a bad idea. This example would be a horrible one, because fixating on the number of kaizen events is silly.

    Focusing on number of kaizen events seems likely to drive the type of bad behavior seen here

    >>> should we merely “substitute leadership” as Dr. Deming suggested?
    how do we foster intrinsic motivation for kaizen? <<<

    This is hard. It involves large scale, deep cultural and management changes. Read the posts from Lean Daily, and the great management books and adopt ideas you learn…

    I think this quote summarizes the reality behind setting arbitrary numerical kaizen targets. "managers will try anything easy that doesn’t work before they will try anything hard that does work" – James Womack

    • I’ll defend my MBA counterparts. I don’t know what you mean by spreadsheet management… perhaps that was taught 20 or 30 years ago in the biz schools, but it sure was not when I graduated a decade ago.

      As for the kaizen issues, I think there is a meaningful metric in comparing the number of kaizen opportunities versus the number pursued… but the ratio needs to be kept in context (my MBA education taught me that statistic mean little… what is important is the next logical question that is brought to mind in analyzing them). But setting a goal? No, I cannot see the value in that.

      As Mark points out, the biggest concern frequently is about management getting in the way and snuffing out the intrinsic motivation that a good work environment should have. Setting a goal for kaizen event is not likely to be helpful.

      • What I mean is the idea that managers should sit in their office and make decisions based on numbers on spreadsheets instead of having decisions made by those that are involved in the process in question. MBA spreadsheet management is the opposite of gemba management. Certainly some MBA’s speak out against the focus on financial accounting but far too many “manage” businesses through accounting instead of with deep understanding of the actual business.

  3. Similarly, setting a target for how much money a Black Belt or Lean person must save each year is going to be similarly dysfunctional.

    One of the leading “lean hospitals” sets such targets. I wish they didn’t.

  4. Hi Mark,

    If you read Kaizen Teian, or 40 Years, 20 Million Ideas, you begin to wonder why Toyota set targets for kaizen. I should clarify, that what I have studied and implemented is that setting a target for employees is probably not the right idea…although the reporting may imply that was the intent – to track how many ideas are being implemented.

    Now, one has to ask the question: how did somebody at Toyota get to the point where they could reliably claim 20 million ideas? The obvious answer is that they tracked it!

    What were they tracking though, is the question that goes through my mind. In my opinion and based on experience in implementing a program similar to kaizen teian, is that the tracking serves a couple of purposes:

    1) An indicator of management commitment. A more important metric that isn’t talked about in theses discussions is implementation rate. This number, at +90% when thousands of ideas are implemented suggests that something else is afoot. One department of lean champions cannot implement 9,000 out of 10,000 ideas alone, the obvious answer there is that the idea generators themselves implemented their own ideas. This suggests that management is encouraging ideas and seeing that people follow through on them. That is ownership.

    2) A constant reminder to practice coaching. There isn’t a right answer here, but a target for leaders is useful to get them out in the genba and practice coaching for standardization, experimentation and improvement with their people.

    In other words, if you set a target, make sure you do use it to drive the right behavior and set up your rules so that people aren’t allowed to game the system. The rules are more important than the number.

  5. First we need to differentiate between “kaizens” and “kaizen events” with the former most commonly applied to employee ideas or suggestion and the latter being short projects. I think Mark is referring to employee ideas.

    Bruce Hamilton of GBMP has a nice DVD entitled, “Thinking outside the suggestion box”. He makes the point that idea systems fail not because of a lack of interest by the employees but because of a failure of management [systems].

    I am in agreement with this so tracking the number of kaizens (ideas) is a means of measuring management’s effectiveness in engaging employees in improvement. Obviously some areas need more support than others and this is management’s responsibility to provide the appropriate support systems.

    • Yes, Anon, there’s a big difference between events and day-to-day kaizen (or “quick and easy kaizen” as Norm Bodek would call it).

      I agree that the # of kaizens is a measure of engagement – it’s an end result, not something you can mandate through quotas, otherwise people’s hearts won’t be in it and you’ll get X number of ideas just so people could say they hit their target.

  6. Mark,

    Very thought-provoking post. Thank you.

    One of the key ideas in lean management is to work on the process, and the outputs will take care of themselves. From this perspective, maybe it doesn’t make sense to set core performance goals and hope that it generates kaizen activity.

    Perhaps a better approach is to identify the barriers to a successful “kaizen culture” (e.g. fear, disconnected management, etc.) and eliminate them so that people feel free to improve the system. In this approach, we’re focusing on the process and the environment, and allowing the outputs — valuable kaizen suggestions — to take care of themselves.

  7. Who sets the goal/target?

    I can imagine a work group getting excited and, having tracked the number of ideas implemented recently, deciding to do more. Sounds like good fun, good energy. Their experience of improvement and ownership of the workplace and work process is propelling them.

    I can also imagine an executive committee or “lean deployment steering team” saying “Each site will carry out 6 major and 12 minor kaizen events this year”. Actually, it doesn’t require any imagination at all! It has all the consequences predicted in the comments above. A lot of nothing, a fair amount of waste, and measure of cynicism will usually result.

    And from a slightly different perspective –

    I think that “kaizen quota” thinking often comes when the objective is to “be lean” (look lean? or even better, report to the board that “we are doing lean”?), rather than to improve, if you get the distinction.

    The effort to improve and to solve problems is best driven by understanding of the situation at hand and a vision of the desired state, not by a paint by numbers kit. Management has an important role in framing the current situation and desired future state, but “kaizen quotas” don’t make any sense to me in this context. Where are we? Where do we need to be and when? What do we need to do to get there? How much can we handle given the current state of the business?

    • I think tracking the # of kaizen improvements after the fact is completely different than a mandated quoted. Tracking, especially done by a team, is a great thing and can help reinforce kaizen so the team wants to do more.

  8. As I read through this post and responses I think to myself what is the point. On the the one had setting a goal for improvement is not really “True North” thinking. It is limiting to some degree. You could even argue it is wasteful by itself. Setting a goal is really a result focused approach instead of process orientated approach. In my Lean experience I find following the process leads to better results.

    On the other hand what goal do you set for improvement initiatives. For a company in the beginning of their journey an improvement related goal can help change behaviors by aligning targets. It is not too uncommon to see companies transitioning from traditional to lean thinking set a goal for kaizen activities. That of course is one of the learnings new lean practitioners need to learn. Kaizen is not about large structured activities that many consultants have pushed. Rather it about the small incremental daily improvements (like that or FastCap). Once you get to this level of expertise in your journey I am not sure a goal is too important. But even at FastCap you see they have a goal that each employee make 1 improvement each day. Is that not similar to a goal for the number of Kaizens.

    So after all this I think if setting a goal helps you in your journey then what is the harm. I believe as you learn more about lean that goal will evolve, too. You may even find it is not needed.

    Mark very thought provoking. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Tim.

      I think telling people “I think you can make one improvement a day” as an encouraging statement (as in “we believe you can do this, tell me how we can help”) is better than the alternative approach of “you’d better do one kaizen per day or you’ll be punished in your annual review.”

      That’s part of the difference between a goal and a quota, in my mind. A goal might be aspirational and if we don’t hit it, that’s not the end of the world and we might talk as a team about what’s getting in the way of kaizen.

      It’s as much about tone as it is anything else, I think.

  9. Great discussion Mark.

    I pondered how I could defend setting targets for kaizen, kaizen event, or kaikaku even, just to play devil’s advocate and look beyond the forest. After 30 minutes, I’m struggling, but I may get there. I can easily advocate tracking kaizen, as even Norman Bodek and Toyota do. However, there is an incredible difference between tracking and targeting.

    Tracking, like SPC, gives you a measurement of employee involvement. Targeting gives you “mandates from on high” that will have no real power behind the numbers. I’ve always tracked suggestions, but we’ve always tried to shy away from targets.

    That being said, we have done a number of kaizen events where we have a goal of “X” suggestions. We then follow our proven format of seven iterations with one improvement idea per person, per iteration. In the end, we show them how simple it is to uncover ideas. I have never had a team not achieve the goal presented, because we use a proven method to teach them how to find improvement opportunities. It is usually a dynamic learning process when seven people are shown the goal on day one of 49 ideas, then they achieve 60+ over the next three to four days.

    More than half of those same people, now that they have learned how to look for potential improvement ideas, continue to generate ideas after returning to their regular work routine. It is the focus on employee development, not really the ‘target’ of ideas, that we actually benefit from.

  10. The goal should be continuous improvement so right away that eliminates the possibility of setting goals on ideas as it is completely counter to the effort. Is one idea per month adequate when the process has wastes that are ten-fold that and then more beyond that and beyond foreever? Tracking is a different issue and I think a necessary one, although the paperwork or process shouldn’t get in the way. Too many people focus on the process of continuous improvement versus on the processes they seek to improve continuously. It’s like citing in Six Sigma programs how many black belts or green belts a company has trained versus what did the effort accomplish. Too many people do “lean” or other “projects” because “everyone is doing it”. It’s nuts. But I believe you need to record somewhere every idea and review it fully and then track and follow-through on their appropriateness for implementation. And always inform the suggester of the outcome whatever it is. If you don’t, it quickly deflates the motivation to make further suggestions: “They don’t listen to me anyway.” “They never follow through on suggestions so why bother?” How many times is today’s process improvement somebody’s idea from long ago that was then ignored? You hear it all the time. Nothing spurs more and more ideas than seeing them implemented and the process made better for everyone — the customer, the employee, the organization.


  11. Hi Mark,

    Good thought provoking post.

    My comment is simple. What is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness? At the end of the day, does it matter if I did 100 Kaizen events if only 5 were actually effective in terms of kaizen.

    My counter question is how do you measure effectiveness instead of efficiency?


  12. A few additional points to consider.

    1. A noted lean auto parts supplier to healthcare orgs has used the number of kaizens to measure employee engagement. Sure is a lot cheaper and probably a lot more relevant than the annual Gallup survey. BTW this supplier is the only surviving US based manufacturer in its market segment and they are thriving and expanding.

    2. This organization has made a decision to lower expectations on quantity and now focus on improving the quality [fix root causes]. This is after almost 15 years of averaging 30-50 kaizens per employee per year. I don’t think anyone in healthcare is getting anywhere near that particpation.

    3. This same organization does set a goal and employees [teams] are rewarded up to one day of leave per quarter. I think these employees would disagree that quotas or goals are counterproductive.

    • To Anon: I think *tracking* the number of kaizens is great. I agree that is a wonderful measure of staff engagement. Tracking the number after the fact is sort of like looking at the “voice of the process” in an SPC control chart. Setting a target/goal/spec is what tends to be dysfunctional, especially if the system is not capable of meeting that “spec” for the number of kaizens somebody might want.

      To point 3: the goal is probably NOT dysfunctional or counterproductive if that organization has the right leadership and culture.

      Setting a kaizen target or quota in the wrong environment is more likely to be harmful, I’d argue. Don’t put the cart before the horse and JUST set a quota…

      To Point 2: I’ve seen some cases where healthcare orgs (or departments) are getting ONE suggestion per employee per year even while encouraging and supporting kaizen. That’s certainly not at the upper bound of what’s possible…

  13. Setting goals for the number of Kaizens to conduct is meaningless. It is more important to nurture the culture of the organization and work force. When our team met at the end of last year, we outlined a roadmap for this year. We decided to set overall objectives that would be supported by various Kaizen activities during the year. We also established that “Kaizen events” would be no more than 1-2 hours each day for a week, involving as many operators as possible in the process. So far, we have made a series of small incremental improvements, and the operators themselves are coming up with the improvement ideas. By setting such a tight time period for events, the team naturally senses an urgency to implement the improvements.

  14. I think setting goals or targets for Kaizen has a negative effect and misrepresents its intent. I can support tracking them for the purpose of sharing (learning organizations do this).

    I think the flaw here is the segregation of “kaizen” as it’s own unique, separate entity. I contend that “kaizen” should be an integrated process or methodology that inherently yields continuous improvements to achieve “other” measurable targets (increased throughput, reduced setup time, reduced variation, scrap reduction etc.)

    The problem with many “recognition” programs is celebrating the big wins. It can be demotivating and people will be less inclined to even mention the small but needed improvements. People may also disqualify themselves or their ideas as not being able to “measure” up to previous ideas etc…

    Regarding integration, I recommend reading Toyota Kata by Mike Rother. More information can be found with a quick Google search.

    Very thought provoking post! I enjoyed reading the many comments as well.

  15. A seed cannot grow unless you plant it in the soil.If there are not enough suggestions the organization does not provide for them.

  16. Apart from building the culture for CI and removing barriers, what other motivators we can utilize?

    Specifically, does rewarding staff with more and better ideas (quantity and quality)help in improving Kaizen, or would that also a bad practice?

    • We have to be careful in terms of ranking or scoring or judging employee ideas. One reason that suggestion box systems generally break down is that the financial rewards to employees were based on the value of the idea. This leads to people thinking this is unfair if they have important ideas that aren’t as easily measured in $ terms.

      The best practice for Kaizen is to basically give everybody the same reward (if any $$ reward is required above and beyond recognition). The exception might be that rare Kaizen idea that has an enormous benefit to the organization, the truly innovative idea.

      Otherwise, we should be generally encouraging lots of small improvements — that’s what changes the culture.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.