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The Role of the Kaizen Blitz in Lean Enterprise Transformation

Lean thinking is increasingly being applied in manufacturing and service industries worldwide.
At the center of the Lean movement is a unique team-based rapid improvement methodology
known as the Kaizen Blitz. What is a Kaizen B litz, and how does it fit into the strategy of
transformation into a Lean Enterprise?

Origin of the Kaizen Blitz

Kaizen comes from the Japanese word meaning ‘improvement’. The character ‘kai’ means
“to change”, “to modify”, or “to convert”. The character ‘zen’ means “good”, “right” or “virtue”.
Kaizen involves looking at the current state of a process, separating value-added from waste
and “making it right” by using Lean principles to leaving out the waste and rebuilding a better

kai zen

“change” “good”
The word ‘blitz’ comes from German and means ‘lightning’. Paired with kaizen, it means
‘lightning fast improvement’. Think of a Kaizen Blitz team as the defensive line of a football
team ‘blitzing’ the quarterback (the 7 wastes) of an opposing team, rapidly crushing them out
of existence.

Although kaizen comes from Japan, in Japan the ‘Kaizen Blitz’ is far from common. Most
Japanese companies have some form of teian system (Kaizen Idea Suggestion S ystem) in
place, or have conducted kaikaku whereby the entire company is rapidly converted based on
a model of an ideal future state (such as the Toyota Production System). But few follow the
Kaizen Blitz approach. This is due to the unique Japan-U.S. connection of the Kaizen Blitz.

© Gemba Research LLC 2004


Lean Enterprise
Transformation Kaizen Idea
Kaizen Blitz

Keeping up with
progress of technology


The Kaizen Blitz originated from the ‘jishuken’ or “autonomous study” workshops conducted
by Taiichi Ohno and his Toyota Autonomous Study Group. This group was managers and
engineers from Toyota Group companies who supplied Toyota . The companies in the
Autonomous Study Group would take turns hosting these one-week long rapid improvement
activities. These “study groups” (doing what we call Kaizen Blitz today) were led by Taiichi
Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System.

The Kaizen Blitz was introduced to the world by Norman Bodek, who during his 60 trips to
Japan over the past 20 years met and translated the works of most of the Japanese kaizen
masters. Norman met and worked with both Taiichi Onho and Shigeo Shingo, and when
members of Ohno’s Autonomous Study Group formed the Shingijutsu consulting company,
Norman brought them to the United States. Their approach to rapidly transforming an area
of the factory from batch to one-piece flow came to be called ‘Kaizen Blitz’ by Americans.

Today the Kaizen Blitz is used by teams across the world to rapidly and dramatically improve
quality, productivity, on-time delivery, safety, inventory turns, changeover times, and overall
flow of work.

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Kaikaku vs. Kaizen

Kaizen Blitz events are most successful when they are part of a kaikaku, or an overall Lean
Enterprise Transformation strategy. While point-by-point kaizen can be useful, sustained and
significant improvement requires a bold vision o f the future state and a roadmap to achieve
that transformation. For most manufacturers, Lean Enterprise Transformation means
implementing the principles of the Toyota Production System as faithfully as possible in their
factory and support functions.

Ideally the role of the Kaizen Blitz in an overall Lean Enterprise Transformation is that of a
driver of change. In a Lean Enterprise Transformation, the culture and operating system of
an entire organization is transformed, piece by piece. The Kaizen Blitz provides the regular
boost to convert parts of the factory or office from traditional methods to Lean methods in a
way that is rapid yet sustainable.

Lean Enterprise Transformation

Phase 1 Develop Vision & Road Map

Phase 2 Kaizen Blitz on the Gemba

Phase 3 Kaizen Blitz in Materials & Information

Phase 4 Daily Management

The speed of the Kaizen Blitz (days or weeks) is important to a Lean Enterprise
Transformation. When people witness the improvements made to both profitability and
quality of work life through kaizen, they ask “When are we going to kaizen my area?” They
want to be next. With the standard pace of change of many improvement i nitiatives of the
past (months or years) the enthusiasm and motivation can be lost, but with the Kaizen Blitz
approach this excitement helps change the culture.

The team-based approach of the Kaizen Blitz is essential to building ownership, buy-in, and
alignment between different functions and levels within an organization. As improvements
are made on the Gemba (actual pace of work) involving the people who do the work and
those who support them, solutions tend to be fact based, realistic, and useful to those
involved. This is a key to sustainability.

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Executing a Kaizen Blitz

What exactly happens during a Kaizen Blitz? It is typically a 5-day event, sometimes
reduced to 3 days if the scope is limited. As the name ‘blitz’ implies, the emphasis is on
speed and action. We experienced “weekend blitzes” where a 3-day weekend is used to
rapidly redesign and rearrange the factory floor and minimize downtime. If many of the
changes can not be implemented, or at least tested during a 5-day period, the scope may be
too broad or inappropriate for a Kaizen Blitz.

One note of caution is that team members should not expect to get their normal jobs done
during a Kaizen Blitz. The kaizen activity is a full-time job, often lasting late into the night in
order to implement the changes in 5 days. One question we often hear is “How do we
improve while still getting our jobs done?” There are several strategies that we recommend
for this:

1) Assign a back-up person to cover for you. This may require working ahead in some
areas, using overtime, or temporary labor. The savings achieved through kaizen more
than make up for the extra effort invested upfront.

2) Come in early, stay late. This is particularly effective for knowledge work,
management, and office functions which may not be as directly linked and paced by
their downstream process as production positions are.

3) Perform your job as part of the kaizen. If you are lucky enough to be the process
owner for the area targeted for the Kaizen Blitz, you will most likely spend time
demonstrating the process, trying new methods, and generally getting the job done so
the team can observe you and brainstorm improvement ideas.

The Kaizen Blitz is an extremely effective way to execute rapid improvement, but teams can
get bogged down during a kaizen week. The most common causes are when important
questions go unanswered, discussions go on too long, or the teams are defeated by too
many “can’t” and “won’t” statements. In order to maintain momentum during a Kaizen Blitz,
follow these ground rules:

1) The team leader tracks down answers to questions while the team members works on
2) Put it on the Kaizen Newspaper for later review when you run into tough problems
3) Replace “can’t” with “can if” and “won’t” with “will if”

In a typical 5-day Kaizen Blitz process, the day by day activities are as follows:

Day 1 Theme: Day of Learning

Receive training. Walk through target area. Map out the process. Review data.
Calculate Takt Time. Perform a 5S scan of the area.

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Day 2 Theme: Go to Gemba
Spend full day observing the process. Use spaghetti diagrams, time observation forms,
standard work combination sheets, video, etc. Brainstorm future state. Document the
improvement plan on Kaizen Newspaper.

Day 3 Theme: Just do it

Simulate new method. Walk through mock-up or actual process with new method. Create
new work balance charts. Make physical changes to the process.

Day 4 Theme: Refine & Debug

Spend the day working in the new process. Tweak the process. Identify bugs and make
further improvements. Rebuild the process and make sure it is functional.

Day 5 Theme: Sustain & Celebrate

Measure and document the new current state. Identify savings. Communicate with all
shifts. Create plan for fully implementing ideas. Create cross training plan. Identify
Visual Management triggers. Create a sustaining plan. Present results to management
team. Celebrate with a group lunch, certificates, group photo, etc.

Day 1: Day 2: Day 3: Day 4: Day 5:

Day of Go to Just do Refine & Sustain &
Learning Gemba It Debug Celebrate

Training Review Data Continue Refine & Make

Observing, Prove Out Sustaining
Understand: Observe Identifying & Improved Plan
Lean Processes Improving Areas
7 Wastes Processes
JIT Identify & Define New Present
Standard Work Implement Standards Results
Visual Mgmt Improvements
Standard Celebrate
Flow Exercise Work
Action Items

Management Management Management Management

Review Review Review Gemba Tour

As we can see, the emphasis is on action. Team leaders and facilitators must always
challenge the team members by asking “What can we do today?” so that every improvement
possible is implemented, tested, and refine while the team is focused on the process.

© Gemba Research LLC 2004

Preparing for a Kaizen Blitz

As the great coach Joe Paterno said, “The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is
vital”. This is most true for successful Kaizen Blitzes. Tremendous results can be had in 5
days of focused kaizen activity, but this does not come without a lot of preparation and
planning. There are 4 key aspects to preparing for a Kaizen Blitz:

1) Define the Scope

Ideally, the areas targeted for Kaizen Blitzes come from a master plan or roadmap for Lean
Enterprise Transformation. The planning and determining of the scope should be done by
the Lean Steering Committee at least a month ahead of time. If this is not the case, Value
Stream Maps are a good place to start in identifying bottlenecks or improvement priorities.

A properly targeted Kaizen Blitz will improve profitability, improve the quality of work life, and
address one or more of management’s pressing concerns. Because the emphasis is on
implementation during the week, it is important to define a scope that is not too broad.

As you define the scope, you will also be able determine the resource you will need to have
“on-call” such as engineering, maintenance, information systems, etc.

2) Set Metrics and Deliverables

Although kaizen emphasizes “creativity over capital” and does not require much investment
in equipment, kaizen does require an investment of people’s time. Kaizen must make money,
and pay back this investment.

There are a wide variety of metrics that can be used for the results of a Kaizen Blitz. These

- Space
- Walking distance
- 5S score
- Safety incidents
- Productivity (e.g. revenue per person per hour)
- Inventory
- Quality
- On-time delivery

The best metrics are those that can be directly linked to reduced cost or added revenue.
While space has a value, the space saved is not cost saved unless you can stop paying for
the cost of renting or owning it. Likewise inventory reduction can be realized as a balance
sheet improvement, but the actual carrying cost savings may be harder to see. The most
effective metrics are related to productivity or direct expense items such as poor quality,
expedite charges, consumables, or lost time.

Having good metrics is also essential for allowing teams to understand ROI (return on
investment) decisions. In the rare case where capital is required to make a significant

© Gemba Research LLC 2004

improvement during a kaizen, it is much easier when the link between the deliverable
(productivity improvement) and the metric (revenue per person per hour) is known. While
teams can come up with “what it will cost”, they may lack the formula for “what it will save”.
Too often kaizen ideas die on the vine because team members believe “They will never let us
do this”. A simple cost benefit analysis based on deliverables for the Kaizen Blitz allows
teams to understand both what they must achieve and at what cost.

3) Engage the Stakeholders

The importance of management support at the highest level can not be understated.
Communicating in often, and in small bytes with the process owners, supervisors, managers,
and customers is an equally important part of the success of a Lean Transformation effort.

This communication takes place not only during the planning and preparation phases of the
Kaizen Blitz but during the daily review “4 o’clock” meetings, where management is asked to
approve changes and remove obstacles to the team’s progress.

Kaizen Blitz Preparation Timeline

Review Lean Roadmap or
corporate objectives
Identify target processes in
the value stream

Define what good looks like for target

3 weeks process, set metrics & deliverables
Gain input and buy-in from
2 weeks
prior Finalize scope, select team
1 week Review preparation
prior checklist, publish plan

In addition to the management team, stakeholders include support resources that will enable
rapid improvement during and after the Kaizen Blitz. These people can be engineers,
mainte nance, information systems, accounting, or practically any function. It is important to
communicate with them ahead of time so that expectations of the level of support required by
these “on-call” resources are clarified. Also, many times these resources will have insights

© Gemba Research LLC 2004

into the opportunities and limitations of the kaizen project, helping the team clarify the scope
of the project and implement more during the Kaizen Blitz week.

4) Select the Team

The Kaizen Blitz takes advantage of the power of cross-functional teams. People from
different and backgrounds work together to solve a problem, bringing fresh ideas and an
outside perspective that often helps break down paradigms. The rule for selecting Kaizen
Blitz team members is that 1/3 rd of the team members should come from the process being
targeted, 1/3 rd should come from processes upstream or downstream, and 1/3 rd should come
from completely separate areas. In this final third it is a good idea to include customers or
suppliers. If your customers and suppliers are not on the Lean path, they will need to be, and
demonstrating the power of kaizen is a great way to make your relationship with them

It is a good idea to have a mix of personalities on the team so that you don’t have a room full
or leaders or a room full of followers. Include a skeptical person or a person who needs
convincing. Include an early adopter or kaizen enthusiast. There are many profiling tools for
effective team building, and we recommend relying on these to ensure effective team

Based on studies of team group interaction, individual teams should be kept to no more than
5 people in size. You may wish to have multiple sub-teams of up to five working on different
parts of a project during a Kaizen Blitz week. In setting the team size, consider also the
limitations of your training or meeting rooms and the impact of dedicating these resources for
a full week.

In addition to a skilled and experienced facilitator to lead these Kaizen Blitz teams, each
team or sub-team should have a team leader to keep the team focused and working
effectively. The role of the team leader is not to give all of the ideas or the final solution. The
team leader’s main roles are in keeping the entire team from being derailed or distracted.
This requires the ability communicate with stakeholders and pull the resources available to
get things done.

Follow up and Sustaining the Gains

After a successful Kaizen Blitz, many good ideas have been implemented, but many
challenges remain. The main theme of these challenges is how the people in an
organization view the Kaizen Blitz, and their roles in supporting and sustaining it. It is
ultimately a question of the culture of the organization.

There are four possible outcomes from a successful Kaizen Blitz event:

1) Results are achieved, sustained, and expanded to other areas

2) Results are achieved and sustained
3) Results are achieved but not sustained
4) Results are not achieved

© Gemba Research LLC 2004

Only one of the four outcomes above is a good outcome. You may ask “Wait, if
improvements are implemented and sustained (outcome 2) isn’t that a good outcome?”
Because kaizen is s philosophy of continuous improvement, we can’t truly say that the
Kaizen Blitz was successful if we haven’t won over new converts, convinced people to
expand the improvement ideas to other areas, and made progress in changing the culture.

On a more practical level, the trouble with “point solutions” or improvements at a local level
that are not expanded upstream and downstream is that they are not effective over the long
term. The Kaizen Blitz must drive improvements across a value stream, so that changes are
implemented and sustained on a systemic level rather than a process level. The goal of
kaizen is to reduce waste and variability, set new standards, and ‘raise the bar’ for process
performance and supporting actions of the people in the organization. You can only say that
you are building a culture of continuous improvement when an improvement is made in only
area, recognized as a better method and adopted in other areas.

Kaizen is a people and cultural issue, not a tool issue – certainly you must have a strong
understanding of Lean principles based on the Toyota Production System in order to
succeed. But the technical tools are not enough. In practically every company in every
country we work with, the question comes us “It works for the Japanese, but how can we
make kaizen work in our culture?”

To understand why kaizen has been so successful in so many companies around the world,
it is important to understand that it is a people-centric system. None of the principles or tools
of Lean are complicated or difficult to understand. Many of the ideas may be hard to believe
(the huge amount of waste in every process) or counter-intuitive (the superiority of one -piece
flow). However, most organizations stumble in their Lean Enterprise Transformation
because of a lack of vision and a culture to support it.

The best way to make sure that the results of a Kaizen Blitz are sustained is to make them
matter to the people who are responsible for sustaining it. These people may be the workers,
the supervisors, the support functions, the managers, the executives, or all of the above. By
improving profitability, you are creating job security. By improving the quality of work life, you
are creating job satisfaction. Doing this for every level in the organization with every kaizen
is the key to sustaining results.

Impact of the Kaizen Blitz

The following are typical results of a Lean Enterprise Transformation driven by Kaizen Blitz

- 50% to 90% lead-time reduction

- 40% to 99% quality improvement
- 30% to 80% productivity improvement
- 50% to 90% inventory turns improvement
- 50% to 90% increase in available space
- 30% to 90% improvement in safety

© Gemba Research LLC 2004

Perhaps the most valuable impact of the Kaizen Blitz is on the culture of a company.
Communication improves as the management and workforce develop a common language
around process improvement. Collaboration between functional departments increases
through the Kaizen Blitz, and walls come down.

As teams learn to work together and rapidly make decisions based on Lean principles, this is
translated into their Daily Management practices. By using the Kaizen Blitz to build
teamwork, we often find teams empowered to take over their own management functions
such as scheduling, purchasing, and hiring of new team members.

The 10 Commandments of Improvement

1. Abandon fixed ideas.
2. Think of ways to make it possible.
3. No excuses needed.
4. Go for the simple solution, not the perfect one.
5. Correct mistakes right away.
6. Use your wits, not your wallet.
7. Problems are opportunities.
8. Repeat ‘why?’ five times.
9. Seek ideas from many people.

10. There is no end to improvement.

Kaizen is more than a method to reduce costs, improve quality and on-time delivery. It is
true that kaizen must make money, but without people there is no kaizen. Without improving
the quality of work life, kaizen does not sustain. Effective Lean Enterprise Transformation
through the Kaizen Blitz process is a self-powering engine that generates perpetual
improvement. The world class competitors of tomorrow will use the Kaizen Blitz to improve
profitability and the quality of work life of employees.

© Gemba Research LLC 2004

About the Author

Jon Miller is President of Gemba Research. Jon is fluent in Japanese and English, and
spent 8 years studying with the Japanese masters of Kaizen and the Toyota Production
System. He co-founded Gemba Research in 1998, a Lean Enterprise consultancy that has
helped 84 companies across 12 industries achieve breakthrough results. He earned a BA
with distinction in Linguistics from McGill University, Montreal Canada. Jon often uses his
bilingual skills to host the Japan Kaikaku Experience where clients witness the power of
Kaizen and TPS in action.

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