Teams are “Us” – Part 6: To Blitz, or Not to Blitz – That is the Question

Teams are “Us” – Part 6: To Blitz, or Not to Blitz – That is the Question

“If you want one year of prosperity grow grain. 

If you want ten years of prosperity grow trees. 

If you want one hundred years of prosperity grow your people”

— Confucius (~ 500 BC)

In my last two posts, I introduced “Cross-Functional/Breakthrough Teams” and “Task Teams”. These Teams are formed to tackle relatively complex goals and are usually cross-functional in composition. These Teams meet on a frequent basis (usually of their own choosing) and have target end-dates from a week to several months after the Team launch date. While the Team schedule is usually very intense, it is not a full-time job for the Team members. The members do have time for their regular jobs (although the Team effort comes first).

But most of you are also aware of a Team Structure where the Team effort is full-time for a relatively short period of time – usually 3 to 5 days. These Team efforts are commonly known as a “Kaizen Workshop”, “Kaizen Event” or “Kaizen Blitz”. (I have also heard it called “Five Days and One Night” to reflect the loss of sleep required to finish up by day Five). But the key difference between a “Kaizen Blitz” and a standard “Breakthrough Team” is that the Blitz is a full-time job until the Team completes its task and meets the goal.

So, which Team Structure works best?… It depends on who you ask!… And it almost always depends on who taught them!

In an earlier post, I covered the fact that I acquired my basic knowledge of how to form and manage Teams in the very early 1990’s from a consulting firm that had acquired their knowledge from visits to Japan. But since the early 1980’s there had also been a reverse knowledge transfer from a small group of Japanese consultants visiting the United States.

Art Byrne and George Koenigsaecker of The Danaher Corporation were the first in the United States to begin to utilize the services of the Shingijutsu consultants, formerly with Toyota. The Shingijutsu group consisted of only three people, all of whom had worked with Taiichi Ohno at some point in their Toyota career. They were really, really good. This was as close to getting the real thing – the Toyota Production System – as you could get without going directly to Japan’s Toyota plants. (Remember, the term “Lean” had not been invented yet).

At first, Shingijutsu did not want to work with Art Byrne. They had come to the U.S. to give a seminar sponsored by Norman Bodek’s Productivity Inc. group. They had not planned on doing any consulting while they were here. But Art finally convinced them to work with him (something about lobsters and golf being on the menu). That was Art and George’s lucky day!

But since the Shingijutsu group was not located in the U.S., they agreed to be on site in Art’s plants only five days at a time. So, they set things up where everyone would be 100% available to work with Shingijutsu for a five day stretch. The same arrangement would apply to Shingijutsu’s subsequent visits. Thus, the birth of the “Kaizen Blitz”! (Or “Kaizen Event” or “Kaizen Workshop” – I really don’t know which came first or even when these terms were first used).

So, I learned my Team Structure from consultants that traveled to Japan and Art derived his structure from consultants that traveled from Japan. It is my understanding (mostly from hearsay, so I do stand to be corrected if necessary) that Toyota basically followed my structure inside Toyota’s plants but followed Art’s structure when working with distant suppliers. I have done it both ways and they both work, but with some caveats.

Going forward I will use “Breakthrough” to refer to my original structure of non-full-time Team participation and “Blitz” to Art’s full-time participation structure. I also assume that both structures are cross-functional in membership and that this membership includes persons actually working day-to-day in the areas affected by the Team’s activities.

It is important to note that Art continued to use the “Blitz” format for his kaizen efforts even after the need for the Shingijutsu consultants (or any other consultants) had long passed. Except for the consultants we used for the initial training on how to structure Teams, I did not use consultants in my “Breakthrough” kaizen activities. (I did allow a few Universities to send people to observe and participate in some of our efforts, but this was gratis on our part).

In my opinion, the single biggest advantage that the “Breakthrough” structure provides (versus the “Blitz” approach) is that it gives the people in the Team time to “think”. Since we are working with stretch goals (50% – 90% improvement targets) within the “Breakthrough” structure, the meetings can become quite intense as new and innovative approaches are discussed and tried. But having some time to return to their daily work routine before the next meeting allows everyone to take a deep breath and look around. They may see things that they never noticed before. They can discuss the Team’s ideas with other non-Team members and get feedback or alternative ideas. They have time to look for those dreaded “unintended consequences” that may be lurking around the corner. They have time to “think”.

I have found the “Breakthrough” approach tends to rejuvenate Team member moral between Team meetings. This is especially true for the Team members at the lower levels of the organizational hierarchy. During the early “Storming” phase of Team development, these members can be left behind as new concepts are thrown their way. Too often they can assume a passive role. This is contrary to our goal of separating fact from opinion. They are the experts that, more often than not, actually have the facts. The “time off” between meetings allows them to gather the facts, regain confidence and be ready for the next meeting. Of course, having a trained Facilitator embedded within the Team structure greatly facilitates this process of confidence building.

The biggest advantage of the “Blitz” approach, in my opinion, is the unrelenting race for time. There is no time to waste time. That Friday presentation deadline to management doesn’t allow for many side trips and delays. Something must get done now! Thumb twiddling cannot be tolerated. We may not have the perfect solution but we have a better solution. Just do it! We’ll make this even better next time. There is definitely something to say for this approach.

The “Blitz” approach also tends to generate an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation going in to the event. There can be a lot of organization wide publicity preceding the event. This is a big deal! But someone must do some a lot of homework before the event takes place. The excitement will die quickly if everyone walks into the first day’s meeting and the Team Leader says: “So, what do we want to work on today?”. I believe a solid, well thought out Team Charter is even more important for a “Blitz” Team than it is for the “Breakthrough” Team. And everyone needs to know and understand the core basics of the Charter before the first meeting. The Charter then becomes the foundation for a subsequent A3, if that is a technique you want to use. And those who will be needed to support the Team, but not actually a Team Member, must be ready to go from day one – the Charter let’s them know what activities may need support.

Upfront preparation is critical! There is no time to spare!

Another great contrast between the two types of Teams is the manner in which the Teams end their work. The “Blitz” Team usually ends their effort with a well thought out plan as to what needs to be done next. Usually a lot has been done already: equipment moved, workplace rearranged, visual boards in place, trial runs complete, etc., etc. But there is usually a list of things that needs to be carried out after the Team disbands. These things can, and often do, fall through the cracks, or drag out forever.

The “Breakthrough” Team usually does not finish until they are finished. Everything that the Team recommended is done and proven out. If something does not work properly, changes are made until it does work out properly. The new environment is fully in place when the Team disbands. It is done! Of course, nothing is perfect (we only sometimes wish) so things can go wrong later. But that possibility is beyond the Team’s responsibility – they did their job.

In my next post, I will discuss what should be done if and when this inevitable entropy rears its ugly head and things start to show signs of deterioration. Remember that other type of Team? Remember the one Team structure that is the living breathing soul of a Lean organization? Remember them? I will get back to them in my next post.

But for now, which type of Team should you sponsor? “Blitz” or “Breakthrough”. I would definitely say “Breakthrough”. Art Byrne would say “Blitz” (I know that because I asked him at the end of one of his webinars). It’s up to you!

Just do it!!!

But make sure that what you do is:

What We Should Do,

Not What We Can Do

2 thoughts on “Teams are “Us” – Part 6: To Blitz, or Not to Blitz – That is the Question

  1. In my experience whether or not the pre-work was done competently was a “make or break” factor to team success. It really takes an honest effort to put it together effectively. I’ve seen too many Kaizen events fail due to pre-work laziness.

    1. Exactly! That’s why I stressed that point in this post and in my previous post regarding Team Charter preparation. I learned this the hard way through personal experience in the trenches. Which brings us back to that puzzling fact (for me anyway) that 70% of Lean transformations fail. Are these the companies that measure success by the number of “Kaizen Events” that take place in a given time span rather than whether or not the “Kaizen Events” are focused on doing what they should do rather than what they can do?

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