“Disruption” has become another business buzzword that obviates the need for prudent, careful thought and consideration. If something is “disruptive,” then it must by definition be good. But when it comes to internal operations at least, disruption is often both bad for business and for employees, because it causes unevenness in work.

Last week, I wrote about how batch processing—whether in manufacturing processes, office processes, or even team management—creates unevenness and disrupts the smooth flow of work and value to the customer. This week I’d like to address the disruption caused by kaizen events.

What could be wrong with kaizen events? What company wouldn’t want to reap the benefits of large improvements in processes? Yet, kaizen events—in which employees in a given area stop their regular work for a full week in order to improve a given process—are the epitome of disruption. Kaizen events were invented by the original Japanese consultants who came from Japan to work with US companies in the late 1980s. It made no sense for consultants traveling all the way from Japan to the United States to work with a company for just a half-day or a full day. Instead, the consultant stayed for a full five days. To be sure, the benefits are real (if often unsustained). But kaizen events overload people in the week or two before the event by requiring them to produce extra in compensation for the upcoming downtime. Ironically, a weeklong event implicitly sends the signal that “kaizen,” which means “continuous improvement” in Japanese, is actually discontinuous. (“We’re doing improvement this week. Next week it’s back to business as usual.”) 

Companies that realize the greatest benefits from lean don’t do kaizen events (and that includes Toyota). Rather, they make kaizen a daily activity. Cambridge Engineering, an HVAC manufacturer near St. Louis, for example, has explicitly carved out 30 minutes everyday for employees to do “lean and clean.” Other companies are less structured about it, but still benefit from embedding improvement efforts into the fabric of daily activities without disrupting the overall flow of work. 

In fact, one of the great benefits of the Toyota Kata approach is that the size of each experiment is small by design. Crafting small experiments to move towards a target condition that can be achieved in a couple of weeks means significantly less disruption to the people and the processes in the organization. To be sure, sometimes implementing an improvement will necessitate shutting down a production line or a department for a few days—but not nearly as often as you might think.

Next week: Reacting to Noise in the Data.