Kaizen Questions… What If?


ifthenWhen I talk to people about the Kaizen approach to continuous improvement, with my consulting hat on or in my role with KaiNexus, I don't find anybody who is resistant to the IDEA of continuous improvement.

But, they have a lot of questions… and behind those questions are some anxieties about this process.

Some of the questions include things that can really just be answered with questions.

What if my employees don't have any ideas?  Why do you think your employees don't or won't have ideas? If you ask for ideas and they don't bring them forward, why is that?  This is a good opportunity for root cause problem solving.

What if my employees have bad ideas?  Why do you think your employees will have bad ideas? Are you willing to work with them in coaching them through their problem solving or their ideas? Are you willing to make the time as a leader to do this?

What if my employees just ask me to buy stuff instead of fixing processes?  Again, are you willing to give them feedback and to coach them to find creative solutions if you don't have the budget to buy things they want. Can you coach them to use “creativity over capital”? Are you willing to make the time to do this?

What if my employees have selfish ideas?  Are you willing to work with them to understand how to focus on customer needs and providing more value to them through Kaizen?

What if my employees come up with sub-optimizing ideas?  Are you willing to coach them and work with them to understand the bigger system they work in?

What if my employees come up with ideas that violate rules or regulations?  Are you willing to take the time to educate them about these rules rather than just rejecting their ideas?

This could go on and on… are the biggest questions about the front-line staff or about our managers and our culture?

Are any of the “what if?” questions really that insurmountable?

Nobody creates a culture of continuous of improvement over night. You won't do it perfectly at first. It's a learning experience, for all involved. But, you never get better at it if you don't get started.

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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. Nicely done, Mark. I recall my early (pre-kaizen) years in industry where managers always asked us to think “outside the box,” but never actually allowed us to do so out of fear that we would cause trouble – they type of trouble you outlined in each of the questions, above. The clear sense was that we could not be trusted, which obviously affected teamwork and slowed down the pace of problem-solving. Managers trained us workers to support the status quo – that is, until Shingijutsu came along. They shattered the box that we were put into.

  2. Shingijutsu was given great latitude by top management to do things and was there for quite a long time, but you are exactly right. Employees eventually ended up back inside the box as senior managers changed over the years, and as their perception of the value of Shingijutsu’s work diminished (across all dimensions: flow, learning, etc.).

  3. Mark and Bob

    You have both aptly hit upon the management conundrum. ‘We want engagement, but we don’t know how to do it.’ The inability to be honest about that is the first step. The support to develop those skills comes next. This is what you have both talked about so often.

    It is of interest that only the three of us have commented here. Is that because the post hasn’t been available long enough for others to see and comment upon, or is that a reflection of the root cause of the questions listed above?


  4. You have put your finger on resistance to change within management as a key barrier to improvement. This is a topic that is often cited yet challenging to resolve. Some of the best implementation approaches that I have seen are framed as management development programs to address this issue directly.

    • Yes. I find it fascinating that Toyota has boards on the shop floor that people might call “metrics boards” or “team boards.” Toyota calls the boards FMDS… Floor Management Development System.

      That’s a very telling name.

  5. My experience is that employees may want to “test” the system to see if administration is serious about supporting improvement through ideas or are just looking for cost savings.
    In one free thinking outpatient clinic the first idea was to buy new sofas for the waiting area of their clinic as the existing furniture was mismatched and thread-worn. After the new furniture was purchased the department became one of the more prolific areas for good ideas as the employees had confidence that the idea program was more than just about cost savings.

    • Great story, Bart. If a manager was going to be hung up on “what’s the ROI on new couches?,” that improvement would have never happened and future opportunities would have been lost. Imai is wise to suggest that organizations focus early on staff morale and participation, not finances. I’m not saying give people a blank check, but having non-ratty furniture has a clear benefit for patients, so this case wasn’t by any means selfish.

  6. Mark,

    To address the first question, “What if my employees don’t have any ideas?” I think about what Steven Pressfield’s wrote about in his great little book called, “Do The Work”. In it he describes an exercise that Patricia Ryan Madson wrote about in her book on improvisation, “Improv Wisdom”. Here’s the exercise:

    Imagine a box with a lid. Hold the box in you hand.

    Now open it.

    What’s inside?

    Pressfield says that “his religion” is that there is always something inside.

    My “religion” is that everyone has (at least) one idea for improvement.

    But the trick with the question “What’s inside?” is that assumes that there is something inside the imaginary box. And so there is.

    I’ve found it is always better to ask “What is your idea (for improvement)?” rather than, “Do you have an idea (for improvement)?” or even worse, “Do you think you could come up with an idea?”

    I’ve even done the exercise but with the twist, “There is an idea for improvement inside the box. What is it?”


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