If you’re old enough to remember The Lone Ranger, Tonto and Silver (the Lone Ranger’s trusty horse) you’ll also remember the famous silver bullets. Unfortunately, silver bullets only exist in Hollywood, not in the real world. I’ve had several conversations with people whose companies are using lean transformations to pursue the magical silver bullet.

Some people seem to think that continuous improvement is about finding that silver bullet and they engage in multiple kaikaku (the Japanese word for radical change) events looking for a quantum leap in performance. Meanwhile, some of the most respected companies in lean manufacturing continue their steady pursuit of improvement using mini kaizens (the Japanese word for continuous improvement), performed by small teams of personnel in their work areas to achieve value-adding changes.

While it’s nice to have quantum leap improvements from kaikaku events, and sometimes they are absolutely the right thing to do, it’s been my experience that it’s the steady continuous improvement kaizens or similar initiatives that yield lasting increases in performance. It’s also a great way to get lasting culture change in an organization and to get everyone’s buy-in on “that’s how we do things around here.”

Typically viewed as management-driven projects, kaikaku events often take weeks of planning before they’re executed. As a result, the improvements achieved tend to be short-lived, unless they are followed by continuous improvement kaizen events, and the improved process can revert to the old way of doing things. Without getting everyone involved and changing the culture, the improvements in quality, cost, and delivery will soon be lost.

Some companies establish lean offices or lean implementation coordinators to help their organizations spread lean transformations throughout all aspects of the business. Unfortunately, many of these lean offices are looking for silver bullets and planning kaikaku events instead of teaching everyone the skills needed for continuous kaizen activities. While it’s important to have some training in the tools of lean, like kanban, SMED, TPM, etc., the most important training is teaching the basic skills of problem-solving in a team environment where teams can do kaizens in their own work areas without outside help. Management must actively support these activities and empower these teams to make changes without having to deal with formal approval processes. 

It’s only prudent for there to be some limits on the extent of changes that teams can make, such as an expense or capital dollar limit, but teams need to have approval to proceed within reasonable dollar constraints. Without this freedom to act independently, the organizational culture will not change, and people will be paralyzed waiting for management approval before taking any action. To make changes in your operations, establish a culture where people ask forgiveness instead of permission as long as they are doing what their team thinks is best and are within the limits of independent activity that the organization has set.

Like the old story of the race between the tortoise and the hare, it’s the slow, steady and continuous pursuit of excellence that wins the race, not the flashy sprint that can’t be sustained. Experience has taught me to believe that sustainable improvement requires an organizational culture change. The value-adding associates, who are doing the form, fit and function conversions that customers pay for are the most important part of the continuous improvement efforts. They must be respected—and actively supported—by management as the experts in the value-adding work they do. Management must remember that they are critical to the sustainability of an organization’s lean transformation and its continuous improvement efforts by changing “the way we do things around here.”

The above may or may not challenge your thought process but don’t keep waiting for the silver bullet. Certainly, it’s acceptable to strive on all fronts to improve your business processes. However, continuous improvement is more about rigor and discipline than technique. It is about the pursuit of excellence. Keep in mind, however, you don’t have to do any of these things. Survival isn’t compulsory.