Lean, Lean Six Sigma and Kaizen Success = People and Leadership First, Not the Process and Tools!

By Tom DePaoli

January 03, 2018 at 6:41 PM

Many organizations make huge investments in disciplined approaches to problem solving like Lean, Lean Six Sigma and Kaizens, which are labeled as “continuous improvement”. There is usually a packaged approach to these methodologies. Steering committees, various belt training levels, tools training, and setting up a project office. Unfortunately, the focus is on process improvement not people improvement or leadership skills. In a previous blog post, De-Mystifying Lean Six Sigma for Purchasing Professionals, I explained how Kaizens are the simplest and most straight forward tool for process improvement. I also recommended in another blog post that purchasing or supply chain professions lead these efforts, Procurement Needs to Lead Process Improvement Transformation.

Purchasing and the supply chain are hotbeds for possible process improvement projects and a Kaizen approach is frequently used. More often than not, they fail or cannot be sustained. As a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, who has conducted many Kaizens, the chief cause of failure is employees lack of trust in management. Employees have had numerous bad experiences with management “flavor of the month” programs that rapidly fade to oblivion. Many of the companies that I consulted for with Lean, Lean Six Sigma and Kaizens methodologies engaged in what I call “pretend” continuous improvement approaches. They basically just gave lip service to the concepts and employees could readily see through this dishonest approach.

Management needs to spend much more effort on improving their credibility with employees and thus raising the trust level. The best way to do this is to train many more employees in leadership and emotional intelligence skills. When you concentrate efforts more on the tools and process improvement you are doomed to failure.

After a successful or unsuccessful Kaizen, I often conducted some lessons learned reviews. I have listed and discus some of the common errors below.

Kaizen Champion Selection

Often the Kaizen champion does not have a passion for the project or process to be improved. Worst yet they have limited knowledge of the process or have never “walked the process.” Team confidence is destroyed by this. Make sure the champion is strongly committed to the Kaizen and walks the walk. If they have marginal leadership skills, they will never be able to lead a small Kaizen team, the team for the most part is very skeptical and often does not want to be involved in the improvement process. They think that the Kaizen is just frittering away their precious time that could be used for “real work.” Training the entire team to have project management skills, soft skills, team building skills and dealing with difficult people skills is a good start.

Lack of Kaizen Preparation

The Champion must realize that many pre-Kaizen event meetings must

take place before the actual Kaizen event just to get the tools roughed out or nearly completed. I recommend getting 80% of the actual kaizen work done before the actual Kaizen event. I call this pre-staging the Kaizen event. Most Kaizen teams hold three to five working meetings before the actual Kaizen event. In reality many of the Kaizen tools require a lot of grunt work, homework, and investigation that is tedious. Many Kaizen leaders or champions underestimate the amount of resourcing, logistics, meeting planning, and time required for the Kaizen event. A dry run or technical rehearsal almost always helps the event.


The Kaizen Champion needs to spend time trying to motivate the Kaizen

team. Ignoring issues and procrastination will not improve the process. Make

sure a marketing or communication plan is developed for the Kaizen. Remember

that you have to communicate to team members, stakeholders, and internal

customers. Make sure you have a path for conflict resolution in case the

Kaizen team reaches an impasse. Have a procedure in place for dismissing a

participant from the team.

Meeting Organization-Keeping to the Agenda

If you want your Kaizen to fail, just run disorganized meetings. Make sure

you have an agenda, stick to the time limit, and publish minutes. Make clear

what you are going to deliver or accomplish in the meeting. Keep the scope tight. Avoid being sidetracked and work hard to get a consensus, but settle for 80% agreement on issues not 100%.

Make sure you are properly resourced with a facilitator, timekeeper, etc.

Make sure you take or have someone take good notes, and have all your

Audiovisual, IT resources and supplies in the Kaizen event room. Do not allow interruptions, cell phones on, or any other distractions. You must get the team to agree to ground rules; I recommend that you get agreement before the event.

Do Not Go Alone

Make sure the Champion has a capable assistant or deputy to assist in the Kaizen

event. My recommendation is that this person be just as proficient as the Champion

and understand the tools and the process. All too often you may be stymied

or disagreement may arise, and another person can make suggestions or provide

alternate ways to solve an issue. They can also assist when a difficult team

member tries to derail the event.

Taking Too Long on the Tools

Face the reality that some members of the team do not want to be there

and may be very hostile. Do not strive for perfection on each and every tool.

My rule of thumb is to make it 80 to 95 percent right and do not get bogged

down by the details. If you nearly complete the tools before the actual Kaizen event session, this greatly helps to alleviate this problem. People respect hard work and diligence. I strongly advise pre-training the team on the tools before trying to actually execute or use them. Trying to train people on new concepts or tools and simultaneously trying to make sure the actual process is correct is just too steep a learning curve.

Skipping Some of the Tools

Time pressures will temp the team to skip or ignore some of the tools. This shortcutting of the tools almost always leads to inaccuracies and implementation issues. Stick to the Kaizen process and execute all the tools.

Delaying the Implementation

Delaying the implementation of the new streamlined process will destroy the

morale of the team. My advice is to implement immediately if possible, or

within a week. If the new improved process is not implemented, you will have a difficult

time ever getting buy-in to another Kaizen event. Make sure the champion looks at the new process and to publicly commits to implementation. If immediate implementation is not possible, agree to a pilot but make sure it has a fair chance of being successful and judged fairly. See my opinion of pilots below.

Pilots Are For Doubters, Naysayers, and Obstructionists

New process or new initiative pilots are good for certain ventures, but

don’t procrastinate or extend them out ad infinitum. It’s a good way for the

resistance to kill off the improved process. The burden of proof is 51 percent or reasonably prudent. It’s not beyond a reasonable doubt or a 100%  twelve-to-zero unanimous jury vote. If you use the latter criteria, you will never have a successful pilot. Make sure that one person is accountable for the pilot or beach head new process and can understand the total picture. Folks love experiments, but remember that the first rule of experiments is to have controls and new metrics to measure it! If you get consensus in a Kaizen to change the process, change it right away! Do not lose momentum.


Too much focus on the process or Kaizen tools will derail the kaizen event. The organization needs to trust management and their leaders for the Kaizen to succeed. Organizations should concentrate on leadership training, soft skills training and restoring employees trust in management.

Tags: Six Sigma Kaizen purchasing process improvement supply chain process improvement
Category: Blog Post

Tom DePaoli


Dr. Tom DePaoli is the Management Program Director at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wisc., and the Principal (CEO) of which does general business consulting in the supply chain, Lean Six Sigma and human resources areas. Recently he retired from the Navy Reserve after more than 30 years of service. In other civilian careers, he was a supply chain and human resources executive with corporate purchasing turnaround experience and Lean Six Sigma deployments. He is the author of eight books and numerous articles. His Amazon author’s page is https://www.amazon.com/author/tomdepaoli


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