Remote Learning: How to Run Kaizen Events AKA Rapid Improvement Events

Remote Learning: How to Run Kaizen Events AKA Rapid Improvement Events -

Lessons Learned While Sheltering in Place

If nothing else, COVID-19 has given us stories we can use about how rapid change can bring about improvements. For our continuous process improvement team, we all had tough choices to make when we started working remotely. Two days after I started working from home, I had to cancel a half-day workshop with multiple cross-functional teams because I had no idea how to keep everyone engaged as we built out a complex process map.

At the time, the only solution I could think of was to share my screen with everyone in Microsoft Teams, while I built out the process map in Visio. This did not seem like a sustainable process. How would I know who was engaged? Would anyone be engaged in the process? If I did all the work, would anyone feel an ownership stake in the output?

How to Recreate a Good Working Environment

I knew what I wanted, a virtual platform where anyone (regardless of their location) could create sticky notes, comment on them, move them around, and create templates based on what we would be working on. I didn’t think that anything like this existed, until I started to do some research online and realized that there were several apps that did exactly this: Mural, Miro, Stormboard, and others. These applications are all very intuitive and have made it possible for us to continue to hold various process improvement workshops virtually.

As intuitive as these applications are to use, there is still a learning curve, which varies depending on the individual. It is essential that you allow time for those attending the workshop to familiarize themselves with the application you are using, either build in time to your agenda during the workshop, or have a 15-minute session a day before the workshop, to make sure everyone can log in, familiarize themselves with the application and perhaps give them a preview of what you will cover in the workshop.

Virtual vs. Traditional Workshops

Over the last few months, I have found that doing virtual workshops has advantages over traditional workshops.

1. Increased Engagement: Team engagement can be higher virtually. In a traditional workshop you can only have two or three people up at the board putting up sticky notes, while everyone else is watching from their seats – not so in a virtual workshop. Virtually, the entire team can be creating sticky notes and moving them around into the appropriate spot depending on the type of workshop you are running.

2. Less Time: Virtual workshops take less time, simply because everyone can be involved in the virtual space at the same time they accomplish more in less time, not to mention the time savings of not having to drive to the workshop location.

3. Just-In-Time Ideas: In a traditional Kaizen (Rapid Improvement Event) improvement workshop, you identify the process steps, locate pain points, prioritize those pain points, identify root causes, and then develop solutions. I’ve been in traditional workshops where the facilitator shut down someone trying to jump ahead by suggesting a root cause or thinking of a possible solution, by saying “hold on to your idea.”

When the facilitator asked later, they often no longer remember their idea. When working virtually, if you have an idea you can easily attach a comment to the virtual sticky note at any time. You can encourage everyone to jot down ideas as they come, without sidetracking the current discussion. This helps maintain engagement and increases the number of ideas generated.

4. Less Travel: For an organization like ours with multiple locations, there is an advantage to holding virtual summits that is obvious: the reduction of travel. We have had multiple requests to continue with virtual workshops when we all return to work, just to save people’s time in traffic, which can take over an hour. The time, cost, and impact to the environment, are all great reasons to do continuous improvement workshops virtually once things return to the new normal.

5. Flexibility: My colleagues and I have experienced greater flexibility in how we conduct virtual workshops. We have been trying different frameworks for collecting information. For example, I have used a dot voting sheet before when prioritizing pain points into a 2×2 matrix, but it is very time consuming to rewrite the pain point, have everyone get up and place their two dots, sit down, and then discuss.

Doing it virtually, it is simple. You drag the virtual sticky note down to the voting area. Everyone knows what we are voting on, and you don’t have to rewrite it. They can vote quickly. You can even assign everyone a specific dot color so you can discuss why some people are outliers, understand their reasoning, and then as a group adjust the placement of the Kaizen pain point into the 2×2 prioritization matrix. Again, dragging the virtual sticky note up into the 2×2 is fast and easy.

It’s Harder to Apply to “Genbutsu” (Going and Seeing)

While it might seem like conducting virtual workshops is better—there are several advantages—there is one element that is still difficult to do virtually–genba genbutsu (going and seeing). How can we do this virtually? While not impossible, it is difficult, and creativity is essential.

Sample “Going and Seeing” Virtually

For example, I am conducting an improvement project with the front desk reception people and their manager, so how do we go and see virtually.

  1. First, we got blueprints of the reception area.
  2. Double-checked the dimensions.
  3. In our virtual space we built a scale model of the space so that we can conduct simulations.
  4. Took multiple photos of the area from different directions.
  5. Attached those around the scaled layout of the reception area to help people picture it.
  6. If we were having customers use the reception area, I would have filmed various interactions (from multiple angles) so that we could have watched it and discussed what we were seeing.
  7. Finally, we could have gathered historical data by retrieving it from our security cameras to use as a reference for various interactions if we thought that would have helped us.

The point is, while not ideal, there are still work-arounds available if you get creative. Creativity is the rule and to get at some of that, I’m going to include the results of a recent live discussion I participated in regarding running virtual Kaizen Events. These questions zeroed in on a lot of the logistical questions that are front and center for people right now. Q&A on Facilitating Virtual Kaizen Events

Q. What was the most important thing you learned when trying to implement lean in an office environment?

A. While this is slightly off topic to virtual Kaizen events, it is still an important question. There are several things that I have learned and am still learning in implementing Lean in an office environment:

  • First, while the processes inside an office are not the same as on the manufacturing floor, the Lean principles can be applied to the office environment just as easily. In the office they still have processes to do the work and they still have steps in their processes that are wasteful. Therefore it is important to quickly get those you are working to understand, identify, and remove waste from their systems and processes.
  • Second, and maybe even more important than the first thing, is to help everyone embrace the concept of respect for the individual. By this I mean that we don’t blame people for errors or problems, rather we focus on the process being broken and empower everyone to solve their own problems.
  • Third, is to be able to facilitate events in such a way as the team themselves develop the solutions and take ownership for implementing change and measuring their progress to create accountability. Honestly, keep it simple.

Q. What are your thoughts about the future of Lean Six Sigma deployment even past COVID-19? Do you think that virtual events will continue? How is COVID-19 changing Lean Six Sigma past quarantine timeframes?

A. This question is requiring me to dig out my crystal ball and look into the future. While there are times when I have been spot-on in my predictions, there are other times I haven’t even been close. The thing to remember is that the framework of Lean—or Lean Six Sigma, or even Agile—is that these are not dependent upon outside conditions for them to work.

If the tools, processes, and frameworks got the job done pre-COVID-19, then they will work during and after this situation as well. The thing to remember is to understand the fundamentals of what those things are trying to do or the why. In other words, why are we using those tools & frameworks?

At the heart of it, we are change agents. Our job is to help others develop solutions to become more efficient. To make sure the work they are doing is effective. Therefore, if we expect others to be flexible, we need to be flexible in which tools we use and how we use them. Focus not on “This is how it is done.” Focus on the, “This is why it is done.”

When you understand why tools work and why you are using them, you understand their purpose. When you have the purpose as your foundation you can adapt the how to conform with the new realities and still accomplish the why. I did an informal poll on LinkedIn, and I was surprised to see that nearly a fifth of respondents felt that virtual Kaizen events should never be done. Don’t become rigid in thinking that there is only one “right” way to achieve the results.

It is my position that these individuals are so stuck on how to run a workshop, that they are depriving their organizations from the opportunity to make improvements a reality. We have to be just as willing to adjust and improve our processes as we are when we expect others to change their processes. If you need help doing that, run your Kaizen workshop through a Kaizen workshop, and you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Q. What Kaizen canvas templates do you recommend?

A. There are dozens of web-based solutions out there for you to create virtual Kaizen canvases. We have been using two, and and both are quite good. Pricing for an enterprise solution of more than 50 users seems to be nearly identical and the individual license cost is similar for both of these versions. There are other solutions that could work, which ultimately come down to your personal preference. Pricing for all of these applications seem to be competitively priced.

With a little research you can find the solution that works best for you. Look into some of these other solutions:,,,,,,,,,, and, just to name a few. The important thing is for you to see what works best for you and your team, and that you are consistent in using it.

Q. Can you give examples of what time frames work well for sessions? Rather than doing a full 8-hour day, how do you break that up into smaller segments—what length of time works best?

A. This is a great question and one that I asked one of my colleagues recently. In our organization, they seem to be risk-adverse to half-day, full-day, or multi-day workshops—and yet those tend to be the best for getting things accomplished in short order. The work around, which my colleague suggested, is to give them options.

We can either do a half-day event or we can do 5 one-hour work sessions every day next week. They will take the least painful option. The disadvantage you have with shorter sessions is the review time, but if you have those sessions every day you eliminate or at the very least, reduce the amount of time you need to spend in review. One advantage to a shorter time frame is the need to stay focused and on track a little better.

In keeping with Parkinson’s Law, the amount of time it takes to do something contracts or expands to fill up the amount of time available, therefore you can get just as much done in a shorter amount of time as you can in an extended amount of time. Again be flexible. Be willing to try new timings, and then check and adjust to what went well, and what didn’t.

Q. What brainstorming tools do you recommend? Any good Fishbone and Process Mapping?

A. If you are looking for brainstorming tools, look into Design Thinking frameworks, I believe there is some great potential in that space that we can apply to the work we do in Lean. A few years ago at one company, we used MindManager by Mindjet, which offered some great features including easy to create mind maps, org charts, timelines, flowcharts, and concept maps, just to name a few of its capabilities.

This offered a different way for us to capture information than the typical sticky note method. Again, the point is not in how you use tools, but in concentrating on the why you are using them. Look around and you will find different options that might help you and your teams to brainstorm better.

Q. Have you done Kaizens with staggered shifts? How have you balanced that?

A. I have done it once pre-COVID-19, and it took coordination and commitment with management to pay for the overtime of several of the shift leads and workers to attend. We held it early in the morning so the graveyard shift could attend and the swing shift was also able to send a few representatives. For me, virtual setups make it easier. That way everyone can attend from their homes without driving during rush hour.

What a great advantage! They can be there working with colleagues they have never met before. They no longer feel like they’ve been forgotten, simply because of the shift they are on. Another way you could run the event is that you hold the event for each shift, compile the results, and then hold one big event to align everyone on the same page. The main reason we want to include all of the shifts is to get their buy-in and their ownership of the improvements.

Q. How many of these products can be used by government agencies? Zoom is not approved due to questions about security.

A. This is an excellent question. Zoom does have issues from a government agency perspective, but at the Port of Seattle we had just started using MS Teams a few months before COVID-19 hit. In fact our IT department did an unbelievable job rolling it out to the rest of the organization in record time for a deployment. We were able to leverage that experience when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reached out to us a few months later because they were looking to roll out MS Teams to their organization.

One nice thing about being a government agency is that we are not worried about competitive advantage, and therefore we are able to share best practices and trouble shoot with each other. Hopefully that answered the question about a virtual meeting application for government agencies.

As for the virtual white board applications, we are still in the process of validating security concerns. Our IT department doesn’t see this as too much of a problem since the applications we are interested in are all approved Microsoft add-ons to Teams. This has helped to lessen any concerns they have regarding security. But we are still trying to get final approval to purchase a license, which I hope comes before our free trial expires.

Q. Do you struggle at times, with the notion of training/intro to tools and balancing that with the project outputs?

A. First off, keep in mind that everyone is different, what is a struggle for one, may not be for another. Instead of comparing capabilities, we can change the question a bit. The real question here is how do we balance the workload with the need to learn a new application or offer new training? I am a firm believer that to have a truly outstanding organization you need to be generous with your training and development program.

One organization I worked for had a requirement to spend 20% of our time in learning and development. While that sounds great, the reality was that they had assigned us 100%+ of our workload in project work. I’m not great in math, but I know that if I am spending 10-14 hours a day working on project work, then it doesn’t matter how much time they say you should spend in personal development—it just isn’t going to happen.

There is a learning curve for any new software or skill, and while that curve might vary by individual, a great leader recognizes this and will make allowance for the need to learn new things. Therefore, explain the needs that you have with your boss and reprioritize workloads to make sure that the learning and development needs are being met to help support the organization.

For example, I typically plan about 10-15 minutes in a virtual workshop for people to become familiar with how the application works. Recently I noticed a team member was very silent and having a difficult time contributing during our first workshop. I reached out and asked if they needed any help. They felt like they didn’t understand how the application worked despite our 15 minutes of explanation and practice.

As a result, I scheduled an additional half-hour and over 20 minutes of one-on-one coaching, I was able to help them get over the blocks they had so that they felt like they could manage contributing using the application without any help. You have to help people at the level they are at, not at the level you wish they were at.

If management doesn’t understand this, then my guess is that they don’t understand the principle of Lean that says we respect the individual, and I would be willing to bet that you are having implementation issues in your organization as well. The one lesson I learned late in my career is that life is too short to be unhappy in your work, and it is important to quickly move out of any situation that is causing you major stress. Hopefully that answers your question. If the question was more of a time management/project management question, then I can help you there as well, but I would need a bit more detail.

Q. We have been assessing the tools but there have been concerns about data privacy. What tool has the best data confidentiality, especially for process mapping?

A. While I am a certified Scrum Master and I have worked on several technology builds, I am in no way an expert in data security. If you are concerned about confidentiality, then contacting your IT group might be a good option to help you find the best solution for you and your organization.

My preference for creating process maps is Visio, especially for large maps, because you can adjust the size of the canvas. I’ve printed out multiple 3 foot by 10 or even 12-foot process maps over my career. The teams are always amazed when they finally see how large and complex their processes are. I will often convert the Visio file into a pdf Adobe document. If you have the full version of Acrobat you could password protect the files as an added layer of protection.

Jared, Continuous Process Improvement Program Manager at the Port of Seattle, engaged in a Lean transformation and worked with airport operations at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, improving other processes throughout the Port. Jared teaches, trains, and mentors others in applying Continuous Process Improvement.

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