5S in the kitchen #5: “Kaizen” versus “Kaizen blitzes.”

It’s been a while since I wrote an update on my applying the “5S” organization process to our kitchen. The reason for this delay is related to something I mentioned once before: We have VERY little time to do anything but childcare, and definitely don’t have BIG BLOCKS of time to get anything major done without interruption.

I didn’t realize this would affect the 5S process, but I should have. All of the narratives I’ve read where companies applied the 5S process to their workspaces took place during big lean rollout workshops. That is, the workers had hours or days totally unobstructed in which to do the full 5 S process to its conclusion.

In our household, there is no time for a hiatus or seminar or workshop to get these big changes made. The toddlers are almost always here, and if they aren’t here, we aren’t either. If something can’t be rolled into the daily routine of keeping things going, it can’t happen.

So after I Sorted and Straightened the kitchen, the 5S process ground to a halt. There simply isn’t the time to do the Sorting and Straightening that needs to be done to get it “right.” We don’t have time to totally go through the cabinets and fridge and freezer and get everything sorted out properly. Despairing of this reality, I got stuck.

There’s a bigger issue here: At the center of lean production is the concept of kaizen, meaning “continuous incremental improvement.” The idea is that the lean worker is always looking for ways to improve the process, even in tiny ways, in a cycle that never really ends.

This is an inspiring idea in many ways, but from what I’ve seen, American business wasn’t very responsive to it when lean ideas began to proliferate in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Gradual incremental improvement just sounded too slow. They needed things to get better now, not wait around for thousands of tiny fixes to gradually accumulate in the system.

So American organizations popularized the idea of the “kaizen blitz,” a short period of highly-focused lean transformation where you’d drop everything else and radically transform your business to a leaner, better form. In theory, this blitz would take many of those tiny little improvements and jam them into one frenzied weekend or week or month or quarter, then blast off the operation into a different stratosphere when work resumed.

It’s an exciting idea, but has some issues:

  • It takes time to reprogram people with traditional mass-production mindsets into leaner ways of thinking, and a brief blitz may not be long enough to accomplish this. People end up just going through the motions for a while and then sliding back into systems they understand better.
  • Kaizen blitzes have a marketing aspect to them, with a lot of lean experts offering to come transform your organization in just few days or weeks for a low-low consultation bill. Some of these experts may be able to do what they claim, but many others have a fly-by-night feel reminiscent of the cheesy “investment seminars” and “body detox weekends” run by charlatans in airport hotel conference rooms. Like anything else, it probably sounds too good to be true for a reason.
  • Lean production is a method for learning about your organization so that you can improve it. The results of that organizational leaning process may take considerably longer to develop than it takes to simply learn the basics of lean production. I’m not saying that lean transformations cannot have immediate results; they can and often do. It’s just important to distinguish the way you think about your process from the results of that thinking. After all, even Toyota is still learning new things about how to make cars.

That last point is key for me as I ponder why I the 5S process bogged down in my kitchen. Figuring out how to keep a kitchen organized properly for cooking is an ongoing process, one that I simply can’t blast through completely in one week. I definitely can’t blast through it in a week when I get so little uninterrupted time to pursue it.

So I’m going to scale back and see this as just the first pass in a series of ongoing 5S procedures. I don’t have the unobstructed time I need to properly organize the cabinets and fridge and freezer right now, so I won’t. I will keep working on the countertops, a manageable goal, and return to the rest of it on the next pass.

So I’m now on to the Third S in this more-focused 5S process, “Sanitizing.” More on that next post.


About adbenking

A journeyman sociologist living in Chicagoland.
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