The latest issue of the Spring 2018 AME Target magazine excerpts some mind-boggling—and depressing—data from LNS Research about continuous improvement. As you can see in the chart below (copied from the magazine), fully 44% of responders said that ROI justifications are a key operational challenge in making improvements.


The lack of executive support (20%) and the lack of an improvement culture (30%) is predictable. These complaints are aired at all lean conferences.

But the issue of ROI justification is both mysterious and worrisome. One implication is that workers are looking to major investments in machinery, software, or other technology for their improvements, rather than exercising their creativity. 

Another interpretation is that the executive leaders don’t value small improvements. Instead, they’re looking for huge gains from a few major events. They’re looking for home runs instead of singles and walks—while at the same time, they’re unwilling to make the investments unless they can be guaranteed a huge ROI.

In a particularly ironic twist, the very fact that organizations are relying upon large improvements instead of small, daily improvements drives another problem: the lack of continuous improvement culture and processes. Large improvements tend to be episodic, and they often involve just a subset of workers. As a result, the kaizen mindset doesn’t spread throughout the organization. 

Obviously, I haven’t been to these gembas, so I have no idea what the actual situation is. But legions of organizations—including Toyota—make enormous strides in performance through small, simple kaizens that are free or cheap. In fact, many companies report that their biggest gains come from the steady accumulation of these small improvements, and not from some heroic—and expensive—fix to a problem. Paul Akers, for example, has kept his company on a remarkable growth trajectory by focusing on 2 Second Lean

Moreover, focusing on small improvements increases the likelihood that everyone gets involved in kaizen, and not just one or two times per year. Culture is an outgrowth of our daily behaviors. If you want to develop a continuous improvement culture, you have to start doing continuous improvement—even if those improvements are small changes that won’t directly affect the company’s financial results. As Masaaki Imai said, kaizen means “everybody, everywhere, every day.”

I wasn’t involved in the research presented in Target. But if these results are reflective of the lean community at large, then it raises an important question: what message have we been sending to the leadership and employees at these companies? 

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