The fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives – Part 1


Yes, Lean initiatives can be started bottom-up, but I doubt they’ll get very far and last for long. Here is why.

Bottom-up Lean initiatives, e.i. improvements, are opportunities for improvement found by shopfloor people, line leaders or shop management. “Improvement” is most often understood in a broad meaning and bring up suggestions ranging from make worker routine job easier, fix small problems, make the workplace more enjoyable, achieve their work more efficiently and maybe add some value for end customers.

In order to awaken the staff to finding such opportunities, an initial training about Lean principles, the seven wastes (the infamous muda!) is often necessary, with “kaizen events” organized to hunt wastes and frame the initiatives.

Most often the improvement suggestions and bottom-up Lean initiatives remain in this format: a moderated, paced, focused and framed series of periodic workshops. The events are planned and not problem-driven, done when the workload allows it, which means when people have time and management agreement to distract some resources and time from regular operations.

Here lays a triple pitfall:

  1. People do not develop an autonomous Lean Thinking culture, but keep playing the assistants of some appointed Lean “genius”(1). If the latter is not available, the event cannot happen (so common when “black belts” are mandatory) and chances are that the knowledge gathered during these events will not remain with the team, but go away with the facilitator instead
  2. Problems are not tackled when they appear, failing to use the opportunity for learning from a real, actual and acute case. The muda hunters are set loose to “find something to improve” when the kaizen event is scheduled
  3. As the kaizen events are scheduled and too often subordinate to low workload, the “continuous improvement” is erratic in frequency, inconsistent with learning, problem solving and likely to be stopped for good at some point because “We have no time”.

The format and drawbacks of those events is not the sole reason for making me doubt about bottom-up Lean initiatives being viable. Those bottom-up ideas and initiatives assume that the suggestions will lead to real improvements.

Yet how many of them are nothing else than improving the workplace comfort, changing something to workers’ preferences or taste while assuming this will ultimately lead to (noticeable) performance improvement?

I’ve seen many such “improvements” agreed because management wanted to show willingness to back up bottom-up suggestions, foster workers’ commitment and not discourage them from the beginning. Other suggestions were agreed on the belief they would indeed improve “something”.

Yet most often the evidence of the improvement is not delivered, and no kind of measurement is set up to demonstrate the gain. I am not even expecting for an indisputable demonstration of the cause-and-effect relationship linking the “improvement” to a positive increase of performance, a trustworthy correlation would suffice.

Worse, the good idea in say manufacturing is to have parts unpacked and presented ready to assemble for assembly line workers. The unpacking and display of parts is pushed upstreams to the logistic team feeding the lines. As production lines productivity is measured and closely watched, their efficiency may well go up when the parts preparation is get rid of.

For the logistics team it’s another story, it must absorb additional workload without compensation and as usually its productivity is not measured, nobody sees the waste simply moved to it, perhaps at the expense of other useful activities.

Even worser: Value Stream Mapping is one of the most popular Lean tool and used as a waste revelator. So Value Stream Maps flourish and again muda hunters are set loose to eliminate waste. What the mappers overlook in the first place is the value of the stream they are mapping. And sometimes the process under scrutiny is a pure waste that is noticeable when seen from broader perspective, or higher altitude if you will. But this vantage point isn’t familiar to shopfloor staff.

Isn’t it ironic they put means and time to optimise possible waste? A Lean-deadly sin…

What happens so often next with bottom-up initiatives is top management asking where the beef is. After all, time and resources have been used to “improve”, so where is the return on this investment? And getting no convincing answer, the whole is finally put on hold and frustrated stakeholders conclude that Lean doesn’t work. (2)

Summing up

  • Scheduled and framed workshops are not the best way to develop a Lean culture, especially if it’s the only “continuous improvement” mode
  • Teams remain helpers to the appointed Lean / Six Sigma champion, barely develop a Lean culture
  • Bottom-up initiatives are too often based on unchallenged assumptions regarding the outcome, started on wishful thinking
  • Middle management often lacks the courage to discard suggestions that will obviously not lead to meaningful improvement
  • Improvements are too often local optimizations at the expense of the greater good
  • Shopfloor staff don’t know the bigger picture, hence improve what they see and know, reinforcing the previous point
  • Proof of the reality of the improvement is not systematically delivered
    At some point top management will put an end


(1) “Genius with a Thousand Helpers”, in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”.
(2) I do not approve the way some companies require a calculation of a ROI prior to any change, because the way many costs are defined are questionable. Sometimes improvement are hard or even impossible to express in numbers: reduction of Lead Time, neatness, morale…That’s why I mentioned “correlations”.

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What is Kaikaku?

Kaikaku is one of these Japanese words which found their way into the Lean lingo. Kaikaku is usually translated into “radical change” or breakthrough.

my tiny Japanese dictionary proposes “reform”, “renovation” and “reorganization”.

“Doing” kaikaku means introducing a major change in a process in order to drastically improve it (quantum leap). Kaikaku is therefore “opposed” to Kaizen, which is incremental, small steps, improvement.

Kaizen is often praised for being a safe and low-cost improvement way. By changing only one thing at a time and trying allows to observe the effect of the change and to learn from this experience.

Kaikaku will discard much if not all from the existing solution and introduce big change(s). The usual set of parameters and previous accumulated learning may not be useful anymore. The new process is likely to be unstable until all new influencing parameters are fully understood and under control. Therefore Kaikaku is feared as risky.

Yet Kaikaku is not all bad. Once Kaizen has given all that can be reasonably achieved (timely and in terms of Return Of Investment), a radical change may be the only option to improve further.

Kaikaku is often understood as innovation, bringing in some high-tech or top-notch technology.

Indeed, if a manufacturer changes his production way from cutting away material to additive manufacturing (3D printing to make it simple), it is a disruption and potentially a quantum leap in productivity, efficiency, lead time, customizing, etc.

Kaikaku can be more mundane than that, like reorganising the way of operating for instance.

I remember working for Yamaha music, assembling home cinema receivers and CD players, when we heard the headquarter was planning a switch from long linear conveyor belt assembly lines into small autonomous cells, it was kaikaku because it was disrupting decades of streamlined production.


Chris Hohmann in Yamaha’s headquarter, Hamamatsu city

Many Kaizen events (also called kaizen blitz) are in fact small kaikakus where drastic changes are made in short time. Those events are not the best way for try-and-learn, it’s more often one expert moderating a workgroup and leading it to a disruptive solution, hence kaikaku.

If you’d like to share your thoughts or experience, use the comments below.

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Downsides of kaizen events

In a previous post I explained what kaizen events are and ended it with some reservations. In this one I’ll explain why. I am no opponent to kaizen events, I simply point out the deviations I have witnessed.

kaizen events are quick actions performed in a very limited time, limited perimeter and focused targets. To achieve it, the group has to comply with the standard format.

Participants are rushing from one assigned task to the next, like remote-controlled by the moderator. There is little time and opportunity for participants to really understand, reflect and learn.

Therefore Kaizen benefits to managers solving problems in their area and moderators or kaizen office members for new scores but seldom benefits participants nor even the company, in the long run.

Why company seldom benefits from kaizen events?

First because the kaizen event is no good learning organization, as participants do not develop their own abilities to see problems and improvement potentials, design and carry out experiments to solve issues.

Kaizen event-driven activities keep depending on few champions to lead them.

No planned session means no improvement. People are not trained to improve by themselves nor entitled to do it outside the events.

Kaizen activities in general are welcome in a slowdown to keep paid people busy, but when business returns to normal, kaizen returns to low priority. Continuous improvement is understood as periodic improvement and performance is leaping from one level to the next according to events.

Kaizen events are focused to local problems. These local problems may be solved locally at the expense of some other area or process.
They lead to local optimizations which in sum cannot be the optimum for the whole system/company.

Put differently, kaizen events serve cherry picking independent problem solving, not always aligned with the Goal or really contributing to the organization’s Purpose.

In “Toyota Kata”, Mike Rother explains: “improvement workshop does not require any particular managerial approach. (../..) This may explain some of the popularity of workshops“. Further: “Since the workshop team moves on or is disbanded after a workshop ends, we have to expect that entropy will naturally begin eroding the gains that have been made.

The fast pace of kaizen events is used to overcome resistance to change, yet systematically rushing to implement solutions is a mere top-down approach.

So-called participation is only about giving a hand, seldom the opportunity to truly participate, e.g. Express, analyze, understand, experiment, build, argue, buy-in, carry-out, and learn.

Some organization develop lean champions only and depend on them for any lean-kaizen activity. When those champions have enough experience and track record of achievements, they’ll sell themselves to another company, leaving the previous one without real legacy.

Who’s to blame then?

Related: What is Kaikaku?

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What is kaizen event?

You may know from a previous post that kaizen means continuous improvement. A kaizen event is a planned session for improvement on a limited perimeter, usually focused on a peculiar topic or issue and limited in time. A kaizen event lasts generally a week or less.

Shorter kaizen events are often called kaizen blitz, a reference to WWII blitzkrieg, or fast moving warfare. In German blitz means lightning.

The session is formatted, phased. Participants go through the exercise with scheduled duties like gathering data, draw a situation map, analyze the problem, design a solution, try and adjust and prepare and present the conclusion.

>Lisez-moi en français

Most of kaizen events’ objectives is solving a given problem. The company’s kaizen office or the like generally has a list of improvement potentials and/ or problems to solve or a kaizen event can be organized ad-hoc to solve an urgent new issue.

After the event, the group is dismissed, remaining actions to be completed by some members or delegated to somebody.

Kaizen events (should) involve people working in the perimeter/ process and are considered subject matter experts. The event is driven by a moderator which most often takes leadership.

People from outside the perimeter are welcome for they have no preconceptions and their candor forces the others to explain the situation clearly, extensively.

Kaizen events are popular at executive level because they are limited in time, have clear objectives and can be measured in terms of return on investment.

Managers don’t like the idea to pay someone for non-productive work, non-framed continuous improvement activities are seen as recreation or cool hanging out.

Framed by a standard format, limited in time and under accountability of the moderator, a kaizen event is acceptable investment.

The limited time is not only to limit the costs and backlog while participants are gathering, the limited time is also putting pressure on them.

Kaizen events, kaizen blitz are often used to overcome resistance to change. The change is so quick that most opponents will realize the change or its implication too late to build up their resistance.

Going on with warfare example, it is like overrunning a defense line without spending time to convince defenders to surrender.

I have some reservations about kaizen events as they are too often lean disguises for productivity improvements betraying the kaizen spirit.

>More about downsides of kaizen events in the next post.
>related: what is Kaikaku?

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