Quality in Assembly: Want Fast Improvement? Try a Kaizen Blitz

For a kaizen blitz to succeed, the team must have absolute authority to change the process.

A kaizen blitz team should consist primarily of the process stakeholders: those performing the process, those who receive output from the process, and those who provide input into the process. Photo courtesy Dell Inc.

On the football field, when the offense faces third and long, the defense has a golden opportunity to blitz. On the assembly line, when there’s a nagging problem with quality or productivity, it’s also a good time for a blitz-a kaizen blitz, that is.

Kaizen, of course, is the Japanese concept of continuous, incremental improvement that is a tenet of lean manufacturing. In theory at least, the kaizen process never ends and covers every activity and employee in the company. In contrast, a kaizen blitz is an intense and rapid improvement process in which a team of six to 10 people dedicates itself to a narrowly defined improvement project over 2 to 5 days.

Kaizen blitzes get results by creating a sense of urgency. Just as a football blitz forces a quarterback to make a snap decision, a kaizen blitz forces engineers, managers and assemblers to think and act quickly. They drop their resistance to new ways of thinking, and they don’t have time to think of reasons for delay.

The technique can produce dramatic results. For example, Automatic Screw Machine Products Co. (Decatur, AL) recently ran a kaizen blitz focused on the processing of slotted aerospace fasteners. The fasteners required six operations, and order size averaged 5,000 units. The company had been moving the fasteners to each operation in lots of 5,000. However, that strategy created excessive work-in-process (WIP) inventory, and lead time for the product stretched to 24 weeks.

With help from the Manufacturing Extension Program at the University of Alabama in Hunstville, the company ran a 3-day kaizen blitz. A cross-functional team spent the first day timing and analyzing the operations, balancing the line and developing a cellular layout. The next day, the team rearranged equipment and built the cell. On the third day, the team debugged the cell. In the end, fasteners that once took 24 weeks to process now flow through the cell in minutes, and just two people are needed to operate all six machines. Productivity improved by 25 percent, throughput improved by 90 percent, and WIP decreased by 90 percent.

A kaizen blitz team should consist primarily of the process stakeholders: those performing the process, those who receive output from the process, those who provide input into the process, and even external customers and suppliers to the process. The rest of the team can be drawn from support departments, such as maintenance; subject matter experts, such as regulatory affairs personnel; and “outside” areas-objective parties who have no stake in the outcome of the blitz. The latter are particularly important because they often ask questions or see opportunities that aren’t obvious to people who live with the process every day. The team should be led by someone experienced with kaizen and lean manufacturing. To promote uninhibited communication, representation from management should be minimal.

Once a target for improvement has been identified, the team leader should draw up a charter that clearly defines the process to be improved; why improvement is needed; the results to be achieved; the boundaries within which the team will operate; the people and places that will be involved; the schedule; and potential obstacles.

While they participate in the blitz, team members should be relieved of other duties and attend solely to the task at hand. Messages and e-mails can be checked during breaks. Team members should keep an open mind, maintain a positive attitude, respect each other, question everything, and avoid pointing fingers.

For a kaizen blitz to succeed, the team must have absolute authority to change the process within the scope of its mandate. In other words, as long as the changes do not adversely affect customers, increase head count or exceed the company’s operating budget, management must go along with the team’s decisions. Any support needed to make the changes must be provided by the appropriate departments and treated with the highest priority.

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