Friday, March 18, 2011

Kaikaku, a countermeasure for "We've always done it that way."

“Jaded Julie, here’s a new Japanese word for you to learn. It is kaikaku, meaning radical or transformational change.”

“Another word! Curmudge, I thought we topped off my Japanese vocabulary years ago.”

“Now Julie, you’ve known for a long time that there are single words—in several languages—that substitute for phrases, sentences, or even paragraphs in English. Often there is no comparable English word, and the foreign word says exactly what we want to express.”

“I get it, Curmudge. We have already learned that gemba is the workplace or ‘where the action is,’ and muda is waste that comes in at least eight varieties. And of course, kaizen, ‘continuous improvement’ or ‘small changes for the good,’ is one of the central principles of Lean. So why kaikaku? Doesn’t kaizen cover all the changes that need to be made?”

“Not always. Think of the all-too-common expression, ‘We’ve always done it that way.’ That statement usually represents a historical practice that was implemented without a lot of forethought and has been ‘grandfathered’ into everyone’s thinking. To a change agent, that is abhorrent and is a candidate for immediate evaluation and perhaps radical change.”

“Okay, armchair insurgent, please provide an example.”

“Julie, we talked about this back on July 16, 2009. It was part of our series of postings on queuing theory and level loading or heijunka. Scheduling—especially in hospitals—tends to follow tradition and leads to hills and valleys in people’s workloads, i.e., poor heijunka. Because this is a big, always-been-done-that-way problem, it would require a big, kaikaku countermeasure.”

“Does kaikaku always refer to a big change applied to a big problem?”

“Not always, Julie. The critical difference between kaikaku and kaizen is timing. Kaikaku is quick and total; kaizen is continuous and incremental. Not all processes can be changed incrementally. For example, if you are taking your car through the ‘chunnel’ from France to Britain, you drive on the right in France and immediately change to the left in Britain.”

“Okay Rick Steves, but do you have a Lean example?”

“If a three-day or one-week small-team ‘kaizen’ or rapid improvement event yields a clear, definitive solution to the problem at hand, that’s a kaikaku. We’ve heard about a lot of these in our monthly kaizen report-outs. On the other hand, if a favorable outcome will require incremental improvements and several plan-do-check-act cycles, that’s kaizen.”

“Let’s get real, Curmudge. Does it truly matter which word we use, kaizen or kaikaku?”

“Probably not, but it might if you are Japanese. Here’s a different sort of problem. Suppose you are involved in an effort that ends up with neither a kaikaku nor a kaizen. Unfortunately, some of these might begin as a kaizen event, get bogged down because the traditions are so strong, and end up where they started—doing it the way it’s always been done.”

“And do the Japanese have a name for those?”

“Very likely, but as in English, it would be too profane for posting in Kaizen Curmudgeon. Maybe we should call those ‘teachable moments’ and return later in our Lean journey to tackle the seemingly intractable problems.”

“Old Guy, it has occurred to me that not all traditions are bad. Here’s a good example of something that has always been done that way. On Fridays we’d knock off work early and enjoy some Gem├╝tlichkeit, ‘good living’ in German, at a local oasis.”

“At my age, Julie, my kaikaku for traditional Gem├╝tlichkeit is to go home and go to bed early.”

Affinity’s Kaizen Curmudgeon

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