How to do kaizen in a digital work environment?

When you have a digital environment going to the gemba may not help as much as in a production environment. Or if it is a highly digital environment it may not even be possible. Workers may be dispersed around the globe and value streams may flow through several companies. Does this make kaizen impossible? No it does not!

What stays the same?

You still need to follow the basic pdca steps. You also still need to involve every party in the value stream. You can do this either digitally or physically. You need to start with a well defined A3 and decide together on what to measure.  The approach needs to be scientific and fact based. If there is a physical gemba shared by several people you should definitely go there. Stakeholder management is still very important.

PDCA is a continuous process

What is different?

So the thinking and the basic structure remains the same. What makes the difference? Psychologically speaking it will take people more mental effort to spot areas for improvement in a digital environment. This means that visualization and customer experience become even more important. To be able to visualize you need to get the facts about your digital workplace. This can be done by the tools mentioned below.

The machines/tools you use in each kaizen phase are different:

  • Cognitive tools use pattern recognition based on big data to automate tasks. 
  • Connected tools incorporate machines, tasks, and more. 
  • Virtual tools improve productivity by transforming physical conditions into virtual spaces. 
  • Human centered tools design new workplaces. 
  • Value-added tools define new business models through the use of new core technologies.

You can use augmented reality to simulate customer experience, internet of things to create new tools and connect them to eliminate simple tasks, big data for automation and process mining for identifying improvement potential. Each of these tools assume that there is a lot data available and that improvement happens in the entire value stream and not a silo. You can also try a physical recreation of your digital process to get a feeling for what is happening. 

What to do when you are in a digital transformation?

When a company is in a digital transformation the workplace may have become more digital, but the data may not be reliable or accessible yet. This means that there is probably more than enough room for improvement, but not enough insight to improve on. You can measure the needed data yourself through sampling, audit, mystery guests and calls and employee interviews. Getting people to agree on this approach in advance is even more important than usual. Since the lack of data may invalidate ideas and it costs a lot of time to collect data when there is little of it. My personal minimum in these situations is:

  • Quantitative data on number of customers, lead time, cycle time, wait time and defects
  • Qualitative data from several people and resources (internal and external)
  • Qualitative analysis on root causes
  • Clear priority on fubar data collection.

Usually when a workplace is in a digital transition you can use both tools from production and digital kaizen. Make sure you mix them wisely. And get employee involved on which tool to use. Stay purpose focused in involving them. It is not about the tool, but about solving the problem.

One last tip

In every environment looking to the future is very important. In a digital fast moving environment even more so. Since the past does not look very much like the future any more. So I like to combine digital kaizen with design thinking and appreciative inquiry. Since both are less rooted in here and now than lean or six sigma, they can strengthen your lean practice by looking to the future more.


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