Toyota credits its team members for the success and sustenance of the Toyota Production System. The power of a highly skilled and motivated workforce is a significant competitive advantage for any company, in any industry. Toyota's team members collectively make hundreds of thousands of improvements to their work every year, reducing costs, reducing cycle times, and improving working conditions. Drawing on old and new research, this paper poses a theoretical explanation for why employees get involved and stay involved in transformational activities in organizations. It will explore relationships between corporate belief systems, job and employee satisfaction, and individual self-efficacy and then offer a way for companies to apply all of these theoretical ideas through two practical tools.
Many organizations are attempting to implement Lean principles and practices through Kaizen events, Kaizen blitzes, accelerated improvement workshops, action workouts, or other-named activities that typically generate significant gains in productivity, inventory reduction, or other measurable parameters in a short time within the production system. In teaching and listening to leaders in most of these companies, I also hear about the difficulties they face in sustaining those gains. While I haven't collected any hard data yet, anecdotally these leaders estimate that the gains nearly disappear within six months of the event. As I explored with them the methods employed, it became apparent that they were unable to get their operations-level employees fully involved to the point where they take ownership of the newly redesigned process.
In one recent discussion with a supervisor about the employees' attitudes toward Kaizen events, she told me (essentially) "We loved it the last time they [the Kaizen Team] came in. They helped a lot. We can't wait until they come back again." In a more rigorous study of the effects of Lean production on the workforce, Parker (2003) found that certain practices falling under the category of Lean production could be damaging to employees. She suggests "caution for companies considering Lean production initiatives, especially if they aspire to have a mentally healthy, self-efficacious and committed workforce" (Parker, 2003, p. 631). I believe her findings are valid, but I don't believe that her subject companies did anything Lean. I would expect the same kind of damage to employees in companies doing Kaizen events without modifying the systems supporting the value-adding operations, especially the system that measures and rewards the performance of leaders in the organization.
Typical Kaizen events focus all their energy on improving a particular process. In fact, we have been challenged to focus on process improvement for years, following the teachings of Deming (1986), Ohno (1988), Womack and others (1990, 1996.) While these esteemed researchers, leaders, and consultants also recognize the importance of treating team members with dignity and respect, their followers have apparently missed the subtlety of focusing on employee improvement instead of process improvement. If our focus is on improving people, a likely outcome is that those people will possess the right skill set to continue improvement activities on other processes. This is a fundamental shift...