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Kaizen's Role in Building the High-Performing Organization - Raphael L. Vitalo, Ph.D.

What Is Kaizen?
Small Changes Can Have Big Effects
High-Performing Organizations
  • High-Performing Organization Defined
  • Formative Factors
  • The Role of Kaizen in Creating a High-Performing Organization
  • The Right People
  • The Right Focus
  • The Right Perspective
  • What Kaizen Cannot Do
    About the Author
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    What Is Kaizen?

    Kaizen (pronounced ki-zen) is the Japanese word for continuous improvement. As we use the term, it is a problem solving method that strives toward perfection by eliminating waste.

    Kaizen understands waste to be any activity that is not value adding from the perspective of the customer. Work is value adding when it is done right the first time and materially changes a product or service in ways for which a well-informed and reasonable customer is willing to pay.

    Our process for Kaizen empowers people with tools and a methodology that enable them to focus their improvement efforts, evaluate a work process to uncover improvement opportunities, generate and test improvement ideas, select the best ideas, and make and measure change.


    Small Changes Can Have Big Effects

    By definition, Kaizen pursues small changes that progressively move toward perfection. But the incremental nature of its improvements relates to work process change. When a Kaizen event is conducted according to our method (Vitalo, R.L.; Butz, F.; and Vitalo, J.P. Kaizen Desk Reference Standard. St. Louis, MO: Lowrey Press, 2003), it has another level of impact which is not necessarily incremental.

    Kaizen attracts and develops people who are capable of creating and sustaining high performance. By its nature, it draws to it people who are achievers at heart—people who are internally driven to make a difference, to perfect something. These people are focused on their work, frustrated by waste, and delighted by the opportunity to improve what they are about so that it excels. Their pursuit of excellence is only excited more with each step toward its achievement. Equally important, Kaizen attracts people who also are inclusive in their thinking and doing. Kaizen, as we implement it, demands a broad view of the connection of an activity to all activities that surround it and so, in its fact-finding steps, it describes the context within which the target work process operates. It also constructs its teams to include people who speak from the different perspectives that populate the workplace, and it pursues its solutions with openness to every voice. People who find Kaizen a gratifying experience are not only pioneering in their attitudes but also inclusive in their disposition.

    The kinds of people that Kaizen attracts and develops are the heart and soul of high-performing organizations. The broad and sustained application of Kaizen can lead to a rapid emergence of the central element needed for a company to become high performing.


    High-Performing Organizations

    In 1997, Vital Enterprises embarked on an extensive research effort to summarize the literature on what was thought to differentiate the very best commercial enterprises from all others (Vitalo, 1997). Our first task was to formulate a definition of such high-performing organizations. Our second task was to develop an understanding of the formative factors that create and sustain such an enterprise.


    High-Performing Organization Defined

    We distilled this literature and augmented it with both outcome research from allied areas such as psychology and management sciences and our own experience. From this effort, we anchored our definition of a high-performing organization (HPO) in its ability to produce extraordinary results for all stakeholders (i.e., customers, shareholders, employees, communities, and suppliers). We developed the definition further by elaborating what "extraordinary results" meant. HPOs are the vital few companies that account for most of the change that occurs in each industry, market, and region. Their extraordinary results extend beyond customer service and shareholders gain. HPOs are said to fulfill societal and industry ideals by becoming agents and models of constructive innovation and by being places where people can learn, achieve, and grow. Although these companies produce extraordinary results, they do not necessarily have unbroken records of success. Indeed, HPOs may experience setbacks at different points in their history. What HPOs do consistently display is the ability to sustain performance over time and over changing market circumstances. Their record of achievement has a positive slope over decades. And, even more significantly, they produce benefits for all stakeholders inclusively—not for the benefit of management at the expense of employees and shareholders, or for employees and shareholders at the expense of suppliers and the community.


    Formative Factors

    Our research identified one source for the success of HPOs and three principles that govern its operation.

    One Source

    People make the difference in any enterprise, and they alone determine whether an HPO exists or fails to exist. The right people, therefore, are the single source for achieving all the esteemed benefits produced by an HPO. They are the heart, head, and sinew of such companies. It is from their substance that all other elements of an HPO emerge.

    The right people have these qualities: (1) they align to a purpose larger than self-interest, (2) they are teamed in their performance, (3) they are energized from within, (4) they have or acquire whatever expertise their tasks demand, and (5) they are always pioneering. People who create and sustain HPOs align to a business intent that commits to commerce through excellence and to producing benefits for all stakeholders inclusively. They team with the other members of the business they implement as well as across the company. Their inner desire to produce excellence energizes their performance. Their first step in every endeavor is to acquire the knowledge and proficiency needed to execute their tasks. Throughout, they are pioneering, driving to achieve the previously unachievable, to probe new opportunities, and to create new benchmarks of accomplishment.

    The enlightening yet disturbing implication of this single source of effect is that you cannot change your company without changing its people.

    Three Principles

    The three principles that explain the performance of an HPO describe its relationship with the people who power it, clarify what these people focus on, and explain how they view the rest of what surrounds them.

    Principle 1 asserts that the right people are the origin and end of the HPO. This means that aligned, teamed, energized, capable, and pioneering people create HPOs, and that, reciprocally, HPOs attract, nurture, and develop these people. The relationship is circular and self-sustaining. An HPO never acts in a way that compromises this relationship.

    Principle 2 states that enterprise and learning are the only activities on which people in an HPO focus. Their single imperative is to maximize enterprise through learning.

    Principle 3 declares that all elements other than people are optional. If these elements exist, it is on a "just-in-time" and "only-for-so-long-as-useful" basis. This paraphernalia includes structure, strategy, systems, procedures, equipment, tools, and facilities.


    The Role of Kaizen in Creating a High-Performing Organization

    The methodology of Kaizen described in Kaizen Desk Reference Standard encourages the development of the right people, the right focus, and the right attitude toward all else.

    The Right People

    Kaizen is a teamed activity that aligns performers to a larger purpose of advancing business success and benefiting all stakeholders. It attracts people energized by the opportunity to make a difference and equips them with knowledge and skills that empower them to realize that opportunity. Further, it encourages performers to challenge the usual way of performing work and to devise better methods that enhance the value of work from the perspective of the customer. Every one of its features draws to it the kind of people who are the single source of effect in creating and sustaining the HPO's extraordinary results. Kaizen provides these people an opportunity to exercise their qualities and grow in their capability, involvement, and contribution. If allowed its full impact, the broad application of Kaizen acts to nourish the seeds of an HPO's creation and propagate them throughout the workplace.


    The Right Focus

    Each Kaizen event roots its direction in producing business benefits and uses learning as its means of achieving those benefits. Its very substance emphasizes a focus on enterprise and learning. Moreover, its leave-behind measure and the follow-up team meetings it fosters sustain and enhance the presence of the right focus in each workplace it enters.


    The Right Perspective

    Kaizen continuously challenges people to question the value of each element in a work process. It raises the question of necessity for every action and every resource. In this way it eliminates "sacred cows" and reinforces the third principle of an HPO, that all elements other than high-performing people are optional. From a Kaizen perspective, each element in the workplace either adds value as defined by the customer or it is waste. There are no products or product features that must exist, or production or delivery methods that must be used, or paraphernalia of any sort that must be present. Similarly, there are no roles, structures, or divisions of responsibility that are givens.

    Kaizen, then, can be a means to the strategic business goal of becoming an HPO. Each event, when completed as described in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard, is itself a mini-HPO in that it is "governed by purpose and powered by teamed, capable people who use learning to achieve extraordinary results for all stakeholders." A stream of events with a company wide scope can be used to model and teach the principles of an HPO and attract, develop, and elevate the contribution of the kind of people needed to power one.


    What Kaizen Cannot Do

    Kaizen is a tool, a technology. When performed according to the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard, every element of it is consistent with the model of an HPO and, as just stated, each event is itself a mini-HPO. But Kaizen as a technology is fundamentally paraphernalia. As such, its utility depends on the people who champion and apply it. This is the implication of the HPO model that most authors miss. Most consultants seem to believe it is possible to build an HPO by establishing its paraphernalia (e.g., Bettinger, 1989; Maira and Scott-Morgan, 1995; Neal, Tromley, Lopez, and Russell, 1995). They seem to think that if we build the artifacts, then the artifact builders will appear. In essence, these authors propose to use external conditions to shape the right people into being. This is self-contradictory. The right people are intrinsically motivated—not externally driven. Further, there is no evidence that values can be embedded in people—certainly not in adults. People must embrace them. We can assist each other in the process of developing the right stuff, but we cannot command it. We may model values and encourage their incorporation, but, ultimately, the act of incorporating values is a matter of personal choice. Some people will experience the personal qualities encouraged by Kaizen as meaningful to them and worth their investment and sacrifice; others will not. And that is their right.

    The bottom line is that Kaizen can help you uncover the right people in your organization and can help encourage and develop those people, but it will not transform the wrong people into the right people. Further, if the "wrong" people are at the top of your organization, Kaizen will never be allowed to have its full impact, and your business will not become an HPO.



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    Published April 2004

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