Industrial Engineer Engineering and Management Solutions at Work

December 2016    |    Volume: 48    |    Number: 12

The member magazine of the Institute of Industrial and Engineers

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Kaizen blitz

Take lessons from the NFL to keep process improvement from dying

By Satya S. Charavorty and Richard M. Franza

A quality program launched by ceremonies with a speech by the governor, raising of flags, beating of drums, badges, all with heavy applause, is a delusion and a snare. – W. Edwards Deming

San Francisco 49ers fan and industrial engineer Gideon Yu is the team’s new co-owner and president. 


About one month after industrial engineer and entrepreneur Shahid Khan bought the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, the league’s San Francisco 49ers announced that Gideon Yu is the team’s new president and co-owner.

Yu is a die-hard 49ers fan with a degree in industrial engineering and engineering management from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard. He joined the 49ers last year as chief strategy officer after stints as chief technology officer of Facebook and YouTube, according to the team. He also has worked for Disney and Hilton.

He played a key role in securing an $850 million stadium construction loan, the largest ever in professional sports, and a $200 million financing package from the NFL, the largest sum for a team in league history.

Yu will be in charge of all business operations and report to team CEO Jed York.

“My whole career has led to this point,” Yu told 49ers Public Relations. “My job here is the perfect mix of my passions for football, entrepreneurship, business management and technology. Being at my favorite team in my favorite sport is a dream come true. We all look forward to winning with class both on and off the football field.”

Observers applauded the move, with San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami calling it the importation of “just-make-it-happen Silicon Valley ethos into the 49ers’ front office.” For his part, Yu compared York to previous employers like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, visionaries who weren’t afraid to hire great people and push them hard to realize those visions.

“And that’s the same way Zuck was,” Yu told Kawakami. “Same way Chad Hurley and Steve Chen were when I worked for them at YouTube. Same with Jerry Yang [at Yahoo].”

Kaizen is a compound word that comes from the Japanese words kai (change) and Zen (for the better) and has become synonymous with continuous improvement. But kaizen implementations usually follow eerily familiar story lines. After reading about the Toyota Production System, company executives often are awestruck. Their jaws drop in reading the exotic terms or tools such as muda, hansei, jishuken, jidoka, heijunka, kanban, genchi genbutsu, poka-yoke, hoshin kanri and kaizen.

The power of kaizen coupled with a short, one-week implementation period really appeals to the executive. The kaizen blitz should significantly improve a company’s performance in many areas. With newsletters, meetings and gusto, the company launches a kaizen implementation. The executive forms a steering team with kaizen experts to provide leadership. With the managers’ support, the steering team hastily develops improvement teams from different functional areas.

Initially, experts lead kaizen events, improvement teams try hard, and they are enthusiastic as system performance increases. Then, the experts leave for another event, the improvement teams struggle, and they become dissatisfied as system performance reaches a plateau. Later, with the experts long gone, improvement teams give up and become frustrated as performance declines steadily, eventually returning to the original state.

Over time, after many such failures, kaizens become unpopular. The company executive dismantles the steering team, and managers get rid of improvement teams. With no newsletters and no meetings, the company quietly abandons kaizen implementation, as if the whole thing did not happen. But many such kaizen implementations would not fail if executives applied lessons from the National Football League, the most popular sport in the United States.

Like many of his predecessors and Super Bowl stars, the New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning repeated the iconic words, “I’m going to Disney World” following his team’s victory in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5. The phrase signifies the successful culmination of an NFL season. However, the process that led to that championship began when the Giants held their first minicamp in 2011, or more likely, in the years prior to that. Companies implementing kaizen events can learn how to achieve long-term success in process improvement from the NFL’s best teams.

The National Football League

Away from the cheering of die-hard fans and dancing of cheerleaders, it’s apparent that an NFL football game is all about teamwork and coaching. Three distinct “units” (offense, defense and special teams) comprise the larger team, and each has to work effectively for the team to succeed. Coaches with excellent track records and the ability to lead teams are chosen carefully. Teams of players are developed with surgical precision for each unit. The most successful NFL teams are created by implementing a well-organized plan that is in place well before the season starts. The plan and its execution culminate in a winning season, potentially even a championship.

This multiphased plan is created shortly after the preceding season. Once the team has drafted the best college players and signed free agents (players not contractually obligated to a team) in the April-May time frame, the team begins “mini-camps” and other team activities (OTAs). Most teams have one mandatory, three-day minicamp in May, a limit derived from the collective bargaining agreement between players and the league. This is followed by a series of “voluntary” OTAs, typically four to five that take place from mid-May to mid-June. Each OTA lasts approximately four days. They are called “voluntary,” even though attendance is expected if the player wants to remain on the team.

The purpose of minicamps and OTAs is two-fold. First, they are used for intensive individual coaching that is specialized for the position of the player. Second, they are used for molding the individual talents into each of the three units noted above. The unifying theme is translating coaching knowledge to the players, who have to execute on that knowledge in games once the season starts.

Following minicamp and OTAs, the next step is preseason camp or “training camp.” Training camp typically commences near the end of July. The beginning of camp is much like a continuation of the OTAs, as much time is spent developing the players’ individual skills. However, as camp progresses, the intensity of team building is ratcheted up, and the players demonstrate their skills as four pre-season games take place during the month of August.

In August, the NFL is installing its “processes,” improving individual skills and developing teamwork. During the preseason, the coaching staff imparts much knowledge to all players, but most intensely, to the leaders in each of the units. This enables the leaders (usually the quarterback, potentially an offensive lineman and a linebacker and/or safety on defense) to develop into “coaches on the field.” For instance, veteran quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and veteran defenders such as Ray Lewis and Troy Polamalu, can act as proxy coaches for their respective units during plays on the field.

At the conclusion of the preseason, the team is ready to demonstrate its “processes” in regular season games. Typically, the teams that most effectively used their minicamps, OTAs and preseason games have greater opportunity to succeed in the regular season and the playoffs. Also, prospects are better for more veteran-laden teams that have gone through multiple years of OTAs and preseasons.

Coaching, though not at the intensity of the preseason, must be continued during the season for the team to succeed. During a normal week of regular season play, the team will play its game on Sunday, although there is a weekly Monday night and an occasional Thursday night game. Early in the week following the game, the coaches will spend their time devising a game plan for the next game. They will present that game plan to the players during film sessions and practices from Wednesday through Friday.

So coaching continues through the remainder of the regular season and postseason to ensure success. Because the coaches oversee and direct all plays during games, it is ultimately up to the players to execute the plays and skills developed leading up to the season. The teams that can best use this coaching to develop cohesive units typically have the best results, and teams that can stay together through a longer number of years are better poised for success.

Following the playbook

In sharp contrast with NFL football, a normal kaizen blitz is not about coaches and teams. This becomes evident from an aerospace company’s kaizen journey that followed the familiar model of implementation. After reading a book on kaizen and visiting a Toyota manufacturing plant in Kentucky, the company executives decided to implement kaizen.

Implementation activities were coordinated by a steering team led by the director of continuous improvement and kaizen experts, all having excellent track records. With support from managers, the objective was to drive improvements from the bottom through formation and participation of improvement teams from all functional areas. A continuous improvement database was established, the status of all improvement efforts was disseminated, and high visibility was maintained throughout the implementation.

However, in order to achieve quick results, improvement teams were developed and improvement experts were assigned haphazardly. The system performance (e.g., assembly/week) for these kaizen events was tracked for six months after the initial implementation. With some exceptions, most kaizen events went through three somewhat overlapping phases: introducing, struggling and dying, all shown in Figure 1.


Initially, improvement experts provided the basic training during the kaizen event, explaining forms of waste, value stream mapping, current state and future state to the improvement teams. With the help of an expert, the teams were pushing themselves to value stream map their current state of operations and their desired future state of operations. The expert collected data through a variety of sources, such as interviews, observations and measurements. While the teams assisted, the experts used their histograms, Pareto charts and other tools to perform most of the analysis.

With objectivity from the expert, the teams defined improvement scopes and their targets. The expert developed a to do list that included action items, responsibilities and deadlines to complete all tasks. The expert made sure that all relevant resources, such as maintenance, building operations, electrician and information technology, were available. The teams carried out the actual changes related to the implementation and began to operate under the changed conditions. Managers emphasized the importance of improvements as opposed to daily production commitments and their deadlines.

The teams were enthusiastic and certain about the benefits of improvement efforts; some teams even bragged about their achievements. In most instances, the official photographer was invited to record before and after kaizen event pictures, thus having visuals showing phenomenal progress. Out-briefing sessions were attended by many people, including the division vice president, the director of continuous improvement, managers from the appropriate divisions, and many workers from different departments.

Teams shared the achievements with passion and endorsed improvement efforts with unconditional support. These sessions were lively, with frequent applause from everyone. Many teams were given certificates for their stellar performance. In many instances, teams were given opportunities for breakfast with the vice president of the division and were given coupons for dinner at a restaurant with their families.

Now, the struggles

Then, once a kaizen event was completed, the improvement expert moved on to another event. While some managers provided training, a senior member of an improvement team stepped in and held limited discussions with the team. The teams encountered difficulty in developing a value stream map of their current and future states. While the teams seriously attempted the analysis, they struggled to perform it adequately in spite of assistance from managers. The teams frequently modified the improvement scopes and their targets in order to address functional interests.

While other team members provided input, the senior team member hastily developed a to-do list that included action items, responsibilities and deadlines to complete all tasks. However, many action items were not included, responsibilities were not identified correctly, and deadlines were somewhat unrealistic. As a result, implementation progressed chaotically, and many changes were delayed as resources were not made available. Managers supported functional areas, and they started to emphasize daily production commitments and their deadlines as opposed to improvements.

The improvement teams were unsatisfied and began to doubt the benefits of the kaizen efforts. With only a few exceptions, the official photographer was not called to record anything from this stage. Out-briefing sessions were attended by very few people. At times the director of continuous improvement and perhaps some managers showed up, but few or none of the workers from other departments came. While discussing the difficulties of continuing improvement efforts under pressure, the improvement teams reported their achievements subtly. Sometimes, the achievements highlighted efforts and not results; at other times, they were stated in the future tense. For example, teams reported that they “will achieve 45 percent increase in performance” when, in fact, performance was down by 10 percent. These sessions were low key and included no applause, no certificates, and almost never an invitation to dinner or coupons for the family.

A time to die

Eventually, after a few more months, the improvement teams were frustrated, and they were uncertain about the benefits of improvement efforts. Because there were no improvements, out-briefing sessions were discontinued.

In fact, kaizen events were dying miserably, and in desperation many improvement teams reported their achievements incorrectly. Many achievement records were altered to inflate results and give a false sense of success. Many managers were aware of these activities, but they did very little or nothing as long as most teams met the production commitments.

While the extent of this problem was not known, many teams challenged the integrity of production data and reports. Some teams blamed everything else for their failure, citing the lackadaisical attitude of the maintenance crew, the absence of setup personnel, the delay in material supply or “the terrible attitude of the second shift manager.” A few team members expressed their frustration with graffiti on the walls of restrooms.

Over time, the company executives got tired of negative publicity and abandoned kaizen implementation. They summarily fired all the improvement experts and got rid of all improvement teams. As one company’s manager put it, “We are done with kaizen. Next.” It almost sounded like we were in a post office, not in a manager’s office.

Lessons from the gridiron

Two important lessons stand out from this study.

The first lesson is that improvement experts should be carefully chosen to lead the kaizen journey. It is imperative to require extended involvement of improvement experts for improvement teams to orient themselves to their positions or specialized roles. An improvement expert is like a magnet, with North and South poles that produce a magnetic field. This magnetic field is invisible, but it is a force that pulls on other ferromagnetic materials, such as iron, and attracts or repels other magnets. As Figure 2 shows, iron filings have oriented themselves in the magnetic field produced by a magnet.

Understandably, cost implications may make it difficult to assign an improvement expert on a full-time basis, such as the coaching teams employed by the NFL. Initially, however, one improvement expert could be assigned to many improvement teams for one to two years on a part-time basis. Later, workers or managers can be trained to be “coaches on the field” to supplement the burgeoning need of improvement expertise.

Extended involvement of experts is necessary for successful kaizen events. Many have read the historical accounts of Alexander the Great’s successful conquest from Macedonia to India from 334 B.C. to 326 B.C. But not many are aware that in the early years, Alexander’s coach was Aristotle, at that time the best thinker, writer and philosopher in the world.

The second lesson is that a great deal of attention needs to be given to developing improvement teams from different functional areas. When making teams, it is important not to move hastily, but to take time and determine specialized roles of team members. Like the surgical precision of NFL teams, a lot of thought should be given in creating improvement teams. It is important to understand that team members are like mechanical gears. Two or more gears working in tandem can produce a mechanical advantage through a gear ratio, and thus may be considered a simple machine. Geared devices can change the speed, torque and direction of a power transmission.

Once improvement teams are created, they need to spend time developing skills and trying those skills in small improvement activities, even if they fail at first. Kaizen blitz may take one week, but it takes several weeks to prepare and continue the kaizen journey.

Make no mistake, NFL games may be for three hours, but teams spend countless hours practicing together, developing teamwork, “making it happen” on the game day, and doing the same week after week. Excellent teamwork is necessary for successful kaizen events.

Satya S. Chakravorty is Caraustar Professor of Operations Management at Kennesaw State University. His doctoral degree in production and operations management is from the University of Georgia. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering and sciences from Birla Institute of Technology and Science. Chakravorty has published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, The Wall Street Journal, Quality Progress and Industrial Engineer.

Richard M. Franza is chair of the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship and the interim chair of the Department of Information Systems at Kennesaw State University. He holds a B.S. from the University of Notre Dame, an MBA from Duke University and a Ph.D. in operations management from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has published in the European Journal of Operational Research and Research-Technology Management.