Not just another re-engineering effort

Q&A with Raphael Vitalo, author of Kaizen Desk Reference Standard
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/20/2004


aphael Vitalo IS president of Maine-based Vital Enterprises ( He has authored more than 50 professional publications and led more than 350 organizational effectiveness, performance management, productivity and re-engineering projects. Also known for his work in information systems and expert systems development, he has trained Kaizen leaders in North America and Europe.

How does Kaizen fit with team-building? Is it intended for, or does it work best using existing work teams, new teams where people have not collaborated much together, or one-time project teams?


Kaizen for us is first and foremost about people – and teamwork is the vehicle through which people achieve results including elevating their level of ownership, confidence and capabilities to achieve success. The team defines the final mission and goals based on what it observes during its evaluation of the work process. It uncovers the sources of waste in the work process and decides the best means to remove it. Team members personally make the process improvements and continuously check their thinking with other concerned parties not represented in the event. This assures that all stakeholders are aligned with the direction and actions.

Then, after the event, it’s the team that uses our defined measure to monitor sustained application of the improvements the event made, and it’s the team that follows up to implement other improvements identified for later action.

We include steps to ensure the success of the team. We begin with understanding the values and concerns of team members and relate the event to their values and concerns. We proceed to teach team members skills they need to work together effectively and succeed in making improvements. Then, at the end, we hold ourselves accountable by including measures to check the team’s experience of the event.

As to the composition of the Kaizen team, we like a diverse representation — both experienced and new people. We need representation from all the skill sets that make the work process succeed, as well as from all the interfacing organizations that either affect the performance of the target work process or are affected by its performance. It’s important to engender teamwork across departmental boundaries as well as within the workplace where the process is implemented.

Re-engineering is emphasized as one important factor in analyzing whether to undertake a Kaizen process. Is Kaizen different from re-engineering? Is it a tool or method to use in re-engineering? How are the two similar or different?


We have done a comparison of our Kaizen process with traditional re-engineering, which has been around in different forms since the times of Frederick Taylor, whose work began in the 1800s. What is common is that both focus on improving a work process. What may also be common (depending on who executes the re-engineering effort) is linkage to business results and work process improvement goals. What may be different is that re-engineering focuses on larger work processes segments, and may be executed as a top-down initiative with little attention to stakeholders including customers, and frequently fuzzy measurement of its benefits. Obviously, this varies in different settings and with different leaders and practitioners.

Kaizen is always bottom-up, linked to customer values, and builds in careful attention to all stakeholders from concept to follow-through. Our method also builds in hard measures of the results it produces including business results, improvements in work process operations, and its impact on the people participating in the event.

How does corporate culture affect Kaizen?


Culture is an expression of leadership, and who leadership is, is a big issue. The reason is simple: despite more than 75 years of efforts to transform companies from a top-down control-oriented strategy to participative and, later, flat management configurations with high levels of employee involvement, most businesses remain essentially top down and control-oriented.

So, before proceeding further, you must first obtain the relevant leader’s commitment to the goal of the initiative, commitment to the sustained use of Kaizen as the means for realizing that goal, and to taking the actions leaders need to take to support the effort. We have seen large amounts of money (business benefits) left unrealized because leaders were unaligned and the top leader would not enforce alignment among his or her direct reports.

Why is leadership or sponsorship in the organization critically important? Why is this support often lacking? Does Kaizen require a well-positioned “champion” in order to succeed?


Every analysis that I know of — beginning with a National Science Foundation study of seven major change projects in the 1970s through to the recent studies of why 70 per cent of re-engineering efforts fail — identifies “lack of leadership commitment and sponsorship” as a key factor.

Why is support so frequently lacking from leadership? I don’t have any empirically based answer. An obvious hypothesis is no one holds management accountable for its decision-making. Without that accountability, management operates within its comfort zone. Successful change efforts always involve a sharing of control. This takes the typical leader out of his or her comfort zone.

Sometimes the barrier is not sharing control, it is exerting control. In the book, we describe an example in which the top leader would not enforce alignment among direct reports. Consequently, improvements in one setting were never broadcast to the other parts of the organization where they would have applied. This left lots of added monetary benefits unrealized.

Kaizen requires leadership to put delivering to stakeholders over personal comfort. Broad corporate use of Kaizen would be impossible without strong leadership commitment to personal learning and to involving employees in generating learning. Limited use of Kaizen is another thing.

For example, there may be one-time events or even repeated uses of Kaizen within a division, given that there’s a well-positioned “champion.” This leader must be able to carve out a context that will embrace values consistent with Kaizen or other continuous improvement methods and keep it free from tampering by others.

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