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Leading a Kaizen or Lean Initiative: First Task - Raphael L. Vitalo, Ph.D.

Task 1. Confirm What You Have Been Asked to Do
  • What You Should Confirm
  • When You Should Confirm an Assignment
    How to Confirm Your Assignment
    Next Steps
    About the Author
    Feedback Please


    Problem: You have been asked to lead the implementation of "Kaizen" in your workplace. You are to "create a culture of continuous improvement" and, by doing that, realize improved business results. Where do you begin? We say, "Start with clarifying and confirming precisely what you are being asked to do." Here is why. The word "Kaizen" has many meanings. It is used to reference the concept of "striving for perfection." It is also used to identify an approach to doing that "striving." Even as a specific approach, it may mean simply establishing a "suggestion box" or doing the type of Kaizen event that is documented in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard (see Kaizen's Origins and Scope in the article Six Sigmatm and Kaizen Compared: Part 1). As well, a "culture of continuous improvement" implies a level of employee involvement in the business that few businesses ever sign-on for. Did the person asking you to create such a culture understand how it would change the way management managed? Few people do. Did he or she mean that you would apply continuous improvement to executive functions and not just operating functions? Unlikely, in our experience.

    Here is a recent example we encountered working with a Fortune 100 company. This company initiated a major corporate push to apply "Lean/Sigma" to all its manufacturing operations. The initiative languished for several years, and now headquarters was putting pressure on its local manufacturing sites to move on it. We visited one such plant on another assignment and were asked about our thoughts on this initiative. When we shared with the person responsible for the initiative at the plant what implementing Lean/Six Sigma meant with respect to employee involvement and compared it to how leadership preferred to operate at the site (essentially top-down, little information sharing)—it was clear that "a culture of continuous improvement" would need to be defined differently from what Lean intends. Basically, management would engage selected people on selected topics to recommend improvement solutions. All the selections and final decisions would be by management. The conclusions we have drawn from this and similar experiences are: (1) "Never assume that you understand what you have been asked to do" and (2) "Never assume that a person is using words as you understand them to mean." Check everything out in detail.

    Once you have documented and confirmed your assignment, your next step will be to understand the organizational setting within which you will complete your task. You need this information in order to relate what you are asked to do to the organization's larger purposes. You also need the information so you can recognize which groups within the organization you must involve in your work. With your assignment confirmed and the setting in which you will operate understood, you will explore what is required to accomplish your assignment and then create an action plan that will ensure the satisfaction of those requirements and the execution of all steps needed to achieve the goal you must realize.


    Task 1. Confirm What You Have Been Asked to Do

    What You Should Confirm

    To build a proper understanding of your assignment and a correct plan to accomplish it, you need the following information.

    The action you must complete
    A description of the final product or service outcome(s) your assignment should produce
    A list of the people or groups who are to benefit from this task and what precise benefits each should receive
    The conditions within which you must accomplish your assignment
    The criteria you should apply to decide whether you have succeeded in accomplishing your task
    The method you must use in performing your task (if developing the method is not part of your assignment).

    To document an assignment, record each element of information listed above. Then, share that document with the person issuing the assignment and have that person confirm your understanding of what he or she wishes you to accomplish.


    The Action to Be Done

    The first element of any task is the action you must complete. It is composed of a verb and an object—for example, "implement lean," "create a culture of continuous improvement," "cut our production cost," "eliminate our quality problems," or "make us a lean enterprise." When you are told to accomplish many actions, you need to decide which one to document. In general, document the task that has the broadest scope and effect when dealing with independent activities. When dealing with activities that have a necessary sequence of performance (dependent activities), document the last accomplished activity (Exhibit 1).

    Independent Activities
    Independent activities have no necessary order for getting them done because no activity needs anything from another for it to be completed. If you are dealing with a set of independent activities, ask the person requesting them to prioritize the activities. If you are told "they are equally important," begin with the action that is broadest in scope and effect. For example, you may be told to "do Gemba Kaizen events to eliminate waste" and "create a culture of continuous improvement." These are independent activities—you can do either without doing the other. Some companies select only managers to lead Kaizen events and use front-line workers as assistants only, hence there is no broad "culture" of continuous improvement established. As well, we implemented a 10-year program of continuous improvement within a major business component of a Fortune 150 company that yielded both significant levels of employee involvement and significant productivity improvements—yet, we never did a Gemba Kaizen event (see Using Working With Others Training Sessions to Drive Employee Involvement). If where to begin is your choice, start with creating the culture of continuous improvement. It has the broadest scope as it covers every level of employee and every aspect of business activity. You can introduce doing Gemba Kaizen as an element within this broader activity quite easily.

    Dependent Activities
    Dependent activities have a necessary order for getting them done because one activity needs something from another for it to be completed. Assume, for example, you were told "to standardize work processes" and "to do Gemba Kaizen events to eliminate waste." You would discover you must first standardize work processes before you can do Gemba Kaizen. Doing Kaizen requires having a work standard in place because you cannot improve a work processes that is not stable and defined. Here, there is a necessary sequence. In a group of actions where one action requires that another be completed first, select the "ending activity" to document. Here, the ending activity is "to do Gemba Kaizen events to eliminate waste."


    The Final Product or Service Outcome(s)

    The final outcome answers the question, "When I finish the task, what tangible results does the person requesting this task want to see?" The final outcome might be a report that details the answers to a specified set of questions, a document that describes the standard method for implementing a work process, an amount of cost savings, some number of people trained in XYZ skills, or some percentage of all workers in a workplace generating improvement ideas and making improvements on a monthly basis. Capture whatever the list is. If you are to produce a report, find out what topics the report should address and in what format it should be supplied. If you are to document work process standards, identify the precise work processes that must be standardized. You need to be able visualize exactly what it is that must exist when you are done. Without this information, you will not be able to confirm that you accomplished what you are asked to do.

    If you are told to generate the list of outcomes based on your knowledge, then do so. Remember, however, to record the outcomes in your task description and verify them with the person requesting your performance.


    Those to Be Benefited and the Benefits They Should Receive

    Every task is done to benefit some individual or group of individuals. It may be the customers or shareholders of a company. It may be the citizens of a community. It may be some department or group of employees. You need to identify who these people are because only then can you ensure that you take their perspectives into account as you execute the task. You must discover how each of them should benefit from the task you will perform. This information is critical because it constitutes one measure of whether you have succeeded. In other words, if a task is to produce a specific benefit for a particular group of people, you cannot judge your performance as successful unless, when it is done, you have indeed produced that benefit for those people.


    Conditions of Performance

    Every task includes a set of conditions that you must abide by as you do the task. For example, you will have a period of time to get the task done. You may be provided certain resources (money, tools, equipment, information, guidelines, people) with which to do the task. You may be limited in some ways—e.g., you may not be allowed to make certain decisions on your own or you may be required to involve certain people or not involve certain people. One limitation you should always document is the organizational scope of your task. Are you to perform your task with your team, department, business unit, division, or across an entire business or the entire company? Also, what levels within these components should you affect—executive, managerial, supervisory, or operating level?

    The list of resources and constraints you uncover define the conditions under which you must perform the task. They constitute as set of "do's and don'ts" you must comply with. If you lack information about these conditions, you will not be able to recognize when a task cannot be done or you may do the task but violate some constraint that you had not realized existed. Doing a task without a correct understanding of the conditions under which you must act greatly reduces the likelihood of your success.


    Success Criteria

    Success criteria are the benchmarks that your performance must meet for it to be judged successful. There needs to be a success criterion for judging whether you have properly:

    Completed each product or service outcome,
    Provided each benefit your task was to deliver, and
    Satisfied every condition with which your performance was to comply (e.g., within budget, on-time).

    Each success criterion is anchored in one of these elements: an outcome, a benefit, or a condition. To complete its usefulness, a measure and a target for achievement is added (see Exhibit 2, next page). The measure identifies some quantity, quality, timeliness, or efficiency indicator that will be used to calibrate success—for example, the number of work processes for which standards are documented, the dollar amount of cost savings produced, the degree to which people report satisfaction with the training you provided, the date by which you must complete the task, or the percentage return on investment your improvement actions must produce. Sometimes the measure expresses an expected state—for example, "Expenditures match budget" or "Report contains all requested information." Most times the measure indicates an amount of a result (count, frequency, sum) or the degree to which a result was realized (percentage, ratio).

    The last element of a success criterion is the target score you are expected to achieve on each measure—e.g., 25 work process standards documented, $500,000 in cost savings realized, etc. Exhibit 2 presents some examples of success criteria.

    Exhibit 2. Examples of Success Criteria




    Cost savings Number of dollars saved => $500,000 (USD)
    Work Standards documented Number 25
    Workers involved in generating improvement ideas Percentage of workers in organization who participated in one or more activities => 80%
    Greater profits for owners Percentage growth in profits from prior 3 year average => 14%
    Safer workplace for employees Frequency of lost-time accidents =< 4 per 200,000
    Conditions Satisfied
    Activities restricted to Production department Number of activities outside Production department 0
    Involve all employees Percentage of all production employees involved in some lean activity 100%


    The Steps You Must Use

    Sometimes people will assign a task and also specify some or all of the steps you should take to complete the task. They will judge you not simply on the results you produce, but whether you did the steps as they detailed them to you. You must uncover whether the person assigning you the task expects that you will perform certain steps as you accomplish your assignment. If he or she has such expectations, you need to document them as well and add a success criterion that calibrates whether you followed the steps specified to you. For example, you might set the anchor as "Steps expected to be executed." The measure could be "Percentage of all assigned steps done" and the target "100%."


    When You Should Confirm an Assignment

    Confirm your assignment whenever the task is new, complex, or requires significant resources (personal or otherwise) to accomplish. Do it before you begin to implement the assignment. Depending on your manager and your role, you may be given pieces of the information and asked to complete the remaining components on your own or you will be given all the information. In our experience, rarely is a person given all the information because few managers have a complete understanding of what information they should provide people to whom they assign a task. Always seek all the information specified above, so that you understand what is a "given" and what pieces of information you should add from your own knowledge.


    How to Confirm Your Assignment
    1. Gather what information exists from the person giving you the assignment.
      Tip: Use a direct approach to gather the information. First identify who is requesting the task. Do this because it may not be the person who is telling the assignment to you, but someone above him or her. You must document the task with whomever is the originator of it; otherwise you cannot be sure that you have a correct understanding of the task. To gather the information, ask clarifying questions to elicit the information you need—for example,
      What task do you want me perform?
      When I am done with this task, what do wish to have or see in place? What tangible results do you want me to produce?
      For whom are we doing this task? Who is to benefit from it?
      What benefits do you wish the task to produce for each of these individuals or groups?
      By when do you want the task completed? (A condition of performance)
      What resources will I have to work with in getting the task done (people, information, tools, equipment, facilities, budget)? (Conditions of performance)
      What limitations do you want me to comply with as I do this task (time, money, decisions you may not make without consultation, people or organizations you must involve or may not involve, work processes you may touch or must leave untouched)? (Conditions of performance)
      Where do you want me to do this task? Throughout the entire company? One or more areas within the company? For a specific work process? For a particular set of products? (Condition of performance; represents the "organizational scope" within which you should act)
      Gather any available information about the group's current performance on each metric.
      Are there specific steps you want me to execute as I do this task?
      How should I measure my success on this assignment? (Consider each result you must produce (outcome, benefit, condition satisfied, steps used) and determine how each will be evaluated.)

    After each response, restate what you heard so that the person can confirm it.1 Be especially careful about answers that are not sufficiently specific. As I shared above, the word Kaizen is imprecise. If a person asks you to implement Kaizen, be sure to have them describe what they mean by "Kaizen." Use the information contained in the article to which I referred earlier to explain why you need this description. If you sense that the person may not be able to describe what he or she means, offer the different meanings the word may have so the person can pick from them or tell you that none matches his or her idea.

    Do likewise for the phrase "a culture of continuous improvement." In a culture of continuous improvement, people (leadership and membership alike) are aligned around a common goal; they work as teammates both within their own organizations and with people in other organizations. They are trained in the skills they need to uncover the presence of waste and the reasons why it is present, and to generate ways to eliminate it. They are given access to the information they need to understand what the business is trying to accomplish and how it is succeeding in accomplishing it. They are delegated the authority to make changes. They have time available for this purpose and their efforts are recognized and honored. Management sees itself as supporting the people who implement the business and not the reverse. They keep them informed, solicit their input and feedback on key decisions, and welcome their ideas about any matter. They exhibit a thoroughly participative approach to leadership. Producing a verifiable result is the standard for judging success and deciding promotions, and that standard applies to leadership and membership alike.

    2. Document your assignment.
      Tip: Exhibit 3 presents a format we use to document an assignment. It is simple and does not require a lot of narrative. Consider using it to document your assignment. Leave blank any information that you were not able to collect. Add a question mark (?) after any word or statement that is unclear. This will prompt you to clarify the information further.
    3. Complete missing information.
      Tip: Determine your role in completing the missing information with the person making the assignment. If you are to fill in the missing elements, do so—except for the steps you will take to complete the assignment. Your action plan is completed after you have confirmed your assignment. For any information you are not asked to complete, get it from the person making the assignment by asking additional clarifying questions.
    4. Confirm your assignment.
      a. Draft a statement of your assignment.
        Tip: Use the format depicted in Exhibit 3. See an example of a documented assignment in Exhibit 5,below.
      b. Obtain feedback on the draft assignment.
        Tip: Present the draft assignment to the person making the assignment for feedback. Obtain corrections or further clarifications as necessary.
      c. Revise the document.
        Tip: Make all corrections and additions of new information.
      d. Obtain confirmation of your documented assignment.
        Tip: Present the final statement for the assignment to the person making the assignment for approval (see Exhibit 4).


    Next Steps

    With the assignment information complete and verified, you can easily define the goal of your project. Once you document the organizational setting in which you must perform your assignment, you can develop a description of the requirements that must be satisfied for the project to succeed. These requirements will include both personal and situational elements. On the personal side, you can estimate the energy resources you will need and what knowledge and skills you will require to accomplish your task. On the situational side, you can identify the people, setting, and organizational support requirements that you must establish or verify as being in place so you can complete your task successfully. Then you will be able to write an action plan that you will follow to achieve your goal. Over the course of the year, we will add guides for each of these remaining steps.


    Exhibit 3. Form for Documenting an Assignment

      1. Record the task.
      Tip: Be sure the task statement includes a verb and object at a minimum.
    • [Record here]
      2. List the product or service outcome(s) you must produce.
      Tip: List each outcome. Be sure that each outcome is something observable and measurable.
    • [List]


      3. List the people or groups to be benefited and the benefit(s) they should receive.
      Tip: For example, Shareholders - increased profits or Customers - On-time delivery of orders.
    • [List]


      4. List the conditions of performance that apply to the task.
      Tip: List the resources you will be provided (people, information, tools, equipment, budget) and the constraints within which you must operate (e.g., timeline, authority, things you must do, things you may not do). Also specify the organizational components within which you are to do the assignment and at what levels (e.g., executive, managerial, supervisory, or operating).
    • [List]


      5. List any steps you must execute in doing this task.
    • [List]


      6. List the success criteria you must satisfy.
      Tip: List each result (outcome, benefit, or condition satisfied), its measure, and the target achievement you must produce—e.g., reduce cost - dollars saved - $500,000 (USD).
    • [List]


      7. Define any special terms used in this assignment.
      Tip: For example, "Kaizen," "a culture of continuous improvement," "improved morale," "employee involvement," "Lean," "Lean Office," etc.
    • [List]



    Exhibit 4 . An Example of a Documented Assignment

      1. Record the task.
    • Build work process standards.
      2. List the product or service outcome(s) you must produce.
    • List each output. Be sure that each outcome is something observable and measurable.
    • A documented work process standard that includes both a narrative description and a workflow map for each of the five most used work processes in the ABC department.
      3. List the people or groups to be benefited and the benefit(s) they should receive.
    • Workers who do the work process - They will have a guide that explains what they must do.
    • Manager of the work process - There will be less variability in cycle time and quality of output for each work process that is standardized.
    • Customers - They will have products produced in a consistent manner.
      4. List the conditions of performance that apply to the task.
    • Create standards for each of the five most frequently implemented work processes in the ABC department at the operating level only.
    • Be done in 90 days.
    • Involve the workers who do the work in developing each standard.
    • Get manager approval before finalizing any standard.
      5. List any steps you must execute in doing this task.
    • Be sure to file each work standard with the Office of Standards when it is completed.
      6. List the success criteria you must satisfy.
    • A documented work process standard that includes both a narrative description and a workflow map - Number completed - 5
    • Workers have a guide that explains what they must do - Percentage of workers in each work process with a copy of the standard - 100%
    • Work processes will exhibit less variability in cycle time - Percentage of variation in cycle time over one month - => 10%
    • Work processes will exhibit less variability in quality of output - No measure required.
    • Customers will have products produced in a consistent manner - Percentage of work process cycles executed according to standard - =>90%
    • File each work standard with the Office of Standards - Done - Yes or No - Yes
      7. Define any special terms used in this assignment.
    • None.

    1 See James S. Byron and Patricia V. Bierley (2003) Working With Others Training Program. Lowrey Press for a description of the skills you need to gather and confirm your assignment. Link:


    Published March 2005; Revised June 2006

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