Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S… Why they tend to fail.

What is Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S? More importantly, why do these programs tend to fail?

Basically, all of these terms refer to a philosophy of continuous improvement and working practices, set in place to remove clutter, improve quality, and to streamline work processes. It is the purpose of these ‘quality programs’ to reduce over production, cut waste, and deliver products ‘just-in-time’ to customers.

In theory, these programs are beneficial for the companies implementing them. To a lesser degree, it can also be a positive influence to those who use the same techniques in their own personal lives.

What I’m interested in is why these quality programs tend to fail. I’ve been involved in Six Sigma and 5S programs when employed at various companies in the past. These programs, in my opinion, started with good intentions but were either misunderstood, mismanaged, or ‘gamed’.

Misunderstood: Often, people’s concept of Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S, is limited to the replication of other companies’ implementation of these programs. It is said that copying is the sincerest form of flattery. While that may be true, copying a wrong result will only end in another wrong result. Looking to other companies as an example, is a great start. But you should start by asking ‘Why?’ ‘Why’ does a company using Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S… do so in the way that they do? Does it make sense to use the exact way one company uses it in your own company? Or, do you need to tweak the way you use the program to better fit your own company/work environment? You need to have a vision of what it is you want to achieve and not go about blindly making unnecessary changes. This will only confuse employees who are charged with maintaining the program and create a pessimistic response from them too.

Mismanaged: This is probably the biggest part of failure relating to Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S. Like ‘misunderstood’ mentioned above, it goes one step further by oversimplifying, overdoing, and becoming entangled in the nuances of the quality program instead of addressing the aim of the quality program. An example of this is labeling and marking. You can tell when this is concurring by looking at the workspace in question. Is the area marked off in excess? Staplers lined off on desks… file cabinets lined off AND labeled ‘File Cabinet’… etc. Are things labeled for the sake of labeling? Don’t get me wrong, but when you label a label maker, you’ve exceeded your usefulness and entered the realm of the absurd.

Gamed: Gamed in terms of manipulation of the data to achieve better ‘results’. Results that falsely show the quality program’s results that are not accurate. Managers often try to manipulate charts and data to reflect a positive momentum towards a perceived end goal result. The purpose of Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S is not to achieve perfection but to address inefficiency and wasted movement in the workplace. Implementation of Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S are costly. When the programs get ‘gamed’ in this way, then the integrity and effectiveness of the programs must be called into question.


A few observations… (24 Jan 2013)

I’m currently sitting back and watching a 5S program at a local defense contractor come together. I won’t publicly state the company’s name because it really isn’t important. What I have found interesting is the manner in which the 5S concept is approached and implemented. I’ve seen first hand trivial items being over analyzed while significant concerns are simply overlooked. It may well be that they’re just not fully communicating what is being addressed in a timely manner, but I have my reservations. 5S is suppose to streamline processes and optimize capacity. Instead, it seems that for every streamlined process, there’s some sort of added paperwork or other such obstacle to clog up the system once again. Its as if the appearance of tidiness and order, trumps actual utilization of resources and production time savings. It bears a striking similarity to how the Democratic Party operates… ‘symbolism over substance’!


It has been 6 years since my last update… (27 Jan 2019)

So, what’s been happening in the time since my last update? To be honest, the company used as an example in the above post, stepped away from their quality improvement programs a few years ago. The quality program infrastructure is still in place (status boards, etc.), but hasn’t been maintained for 2+ years. I knew the program was on the ropes when I saw outdated charts, which were usually changed monthly, stay on the boards for more than six months. No longer were weekly walk-throughs being conducted. Slowly, all signs of their quality program just disappeared. If it weren’t for the empty status boards still hanging on the walls, what remained of taped out floors, and the occasional mention of 5S… one would never know that such a program existed within the company.


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