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3 reasons why continuous improvement efforts fail

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Why does Kaizen fail? We all know the usual suspects: lack of top management support, cost-cutting focus, lack of dedicated change agents, low investment on training, wrong tools used at the wrong time…

With hundreds of thousands of experiences out there, it would be daring for me to say this is the ultimate Top 3. These are simply my favorite 3 (non-exhaustive) causes of failure of Continuous Improvement efforts:

3. Focus on the solutions instead of how solutions are developed.

This issue has two aspects: a) the tool trap, which means focusing on the commonly-used solutions of a given methodology (kanban, pokayoke, waste elimination, etc). The tool trap does not consider that these solutions are simply temporary countermeasures to the short-comings of the current system. As the system changes (and it will change) the tools will be obsolete. The second aspect is b) the management by objectives trap. This, in a false sense of empowerment, consists of telling people “you should achieve this, I don’t care how you do it”. The fact is: solutions don’t give us the competitive advantage in the long run, but our ability to understand our current situation and to constantly develop the solutions that fit. Here, the how is crucial.

2. Lack of clear target condition.

We usually arrive with our bunch of tools and skill sets, we look at the process and find lots of issues to be solved. “What can be done to improve this?” is a typical question, with hundreds of typical answers. Then the waste-hunt begins, with a big effort invested and not many meaningful results. The simple fact of having a clear target condition which is set in accordance to a higher Vision will help narrow down the answers by asking the right question: “What do we need to do to achieve the target condition?” With this, meaningful achievements are made, and these will fuel further efforts for moving to the next target condition.

1. It’s not continuous.

What a bold statement: “Continuous Improvement should be continuous”. Silly as it sounds, many fall into this silly error, wondering why the solutions they came up with don’t stick. A mentor once told me: “Errette-san, improvement cannot be sustained, improvement should be non-stop”. Therefore, the key effort should be on fostering an environment that embraces change and that constantly seeks for the next challenge.

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