Leading a KAIZEN™ Event

Facilitation is the oft-overlooked skill needed for success

Knowledge of KAIZEN™ theory, principles, tools, and experience in application are of course very important in leading successful KAIZEN™ events that drive real bottom-line results. However, equally important are the facilitation skills of the person who is leading the event and the team.

Leading a KAIZEN™ event, whether it be for value stream mapping, 5S, problem solving, kobetsu, or quick changeover, is often led by an individual who has the required knowledge or experience in Lean or KAIZEN™ philosophy. Frequently, it is this same individual who will have a monumental influence on the KAIZEN™ event’s eventual and overall success, and whether the principles of KAIZEN™ gain a strong foothold within the organization.

The KAIZEN™ event leader is often the project leader. This is not necessarily a good thing, especially if the person doesn’t have the required facilitation skills yet still takes on the required responsibilities listed below.

Facilitation skills of a KAIZEN™ leader are often overlooked, but they are absolutely key to successful KAIZEN™ events. In fact, facilitation skills ought to be required to lead a KAIZEN™ event and should be developed, honed, maintained, and evaluated just like any other skill. Companies should not allow any individual to lead KAIZEN™ events, whether as an internal or external resource, without ensuring that the person has facilitation skills as well

How about a little irony here? The word “facilitate” means “to make easy or easier.” This happens to be ironic because a KAIZEN™ event’s purpose is to make the workers’ (who add value) work easier to do. A KAIZEN™ event leader’s job as a facilitator, therefore, is to make the team’s work easier to do when determining what nonvalue-added work should be eliminated, what value-added work should be easier to do, and how to do it. Follow? You may wish to read that sentence again if it didn’t make sense the first time (or perhaps I need to rewrite it for the 10th time).

If you have bought into the idea that facilitation skills are just as important as KAIZEN™ knowledge and experience, either through your own experience or from what you have now read, then what are the attributes of great facilitators, and what are their responsibilities during an event?

KAIZEN™ event facilitator skills

Planner

The facilitator must ensure the proper results of a planning session(s): that the scope of the KAIZEN™ event is thoroughly defined, including time allocation, resource requirements, logistics, materials, and so forth.

Balancer

The facilitator must be able to balance the big picture with the detail. He must be able to balance the overall strategic objectives of the company and the overall goals of the team during the event with the details that need to be looked into by the team members as they tackle specific actions related to the project. Team members may tend to dive into detail at the expense of the overall objective, and although this is important, too much detail during the event may not be warranted. The facilitator needs to balance how the team spends its time.

Initiative taker

The facilitator must ensure that actions are taken, and resources are obtained in preparation for and during the event. She must not be afraid to ask for anything.

Engaging

The facilitator must command the room at the appropriate times throughout the event, especially on day one, and ensure that it is clear that he owns the role of facilitator. The facilitator should be engaging, interesting, dynamic, energetic, and motivating. Team members need to know that this is the person they will direct their questions to regarding the KAIZEN™ event process.

Flexible

Each event has its own unique set of challenges; the facilitator must be able to adjust the course as long as she sticks to the principles of KAIZEN™ and constantly focuses on making progress toward achieving the company’s objectives. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Decisive

The facilitator should gather the facts and opinions about problems encountered, perhaps record them for all to see, and either make a decision about the approach or ensure that the team makes a decision. The facilitator may need to facilitate a decision-making process, whether by multi-voting, concept selection, or some other means.

Punctual

Start on time, end on time, and resume after breaks exactly as stated. Don’t be afraid to resume after a break at an odd time (e.g., 10:13), and always record the start time on a white board. This provides more focus. Have the team commit to start and end times, and hold them accountable.

Independent

Ideally, the facilitator doesn’t have any skin in the game or preconceived notions as to what the objectives, problems, root causes, and countermeasures are.

Dumb questioner

The facilitator must be adept and proficient at asking dumb questions. He should never be afraid to ask dumb questions. He should ask questions that might be considered taboo or obvious. He should act as if he is divorced from the company. The questions should be bold, especially with regard to the possibility of eliminating any type of waste. When someone says that this is a rule, or a standard, or a policy, ensure that the team sees the rule, standard, or policy. Often, the organization follows an interpretation of such and not an actual rule, standard, or policy.

KAIZEN™ event facilitator responsibilities

  • Informs all participants of the relationship between what the team accomplishes during the event and the strategic objectives of the organization
  • Sets expectations at the beginning and resets expectations throughout the event; informs team members that there will be plenty to do, as determined during the KAIZEN™ event, and that everyone should be working on these actions
  • Ensures all actions are prioritized and reprioritized, when necessary
  • Ensures that the team provides progress updates toward expectations at least once per day. Ensures that everything is documented in a visible format (e.g., A3)
  • Changes course of direction and actions to be completed during the event to reach expectations, if necessary
  • Ensures visibility of all progress in progressing through the steps (i.e., everyone needs to see the progress, expectations, actions completed, actions to be completed, analyses, and data during each update or review)
  • Takes initiative to pull in required resources, when necessary
  • Ensures all people are busy at all times working on KAIZEN™ event activities and are not working on business as usual (BAU), as agreed upon before the event started 
  • Ensures that toward the end of the KAIZEN™ event, the project leader takes over ownership and the responsibility for leading the event
  • Ensures a future focus with regard to documenting, reviewing, and completing actions after the event; ensures future events, documenting new and modified standardized processes, tracking relevant KPIs, and auditing against the new and modified processes for sustainment

Finally, an organization that has truly taken on the initiative of transforming the organization to one that is continuously focused on improvement, must develop qualified internal resources. This includes evaluating KAIZEN™ event leaders on facilitation skills and providing them with feedback and coaching to improve their skills, and perhaps internally, certify and recertify them against a list of requirements, such as what is provided in this article. By doing this, there is a much higher likelihood of achieving the company’s strategic objectives during the KAIZEN™ event, and a much higher likelihood of continued improvement and establishing a continuous improvement culture.

This article first appeared online on May 9, 2018, at Quality Digest, a Kaizen Institute Online partner.

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