2.14.2007

A Professor Misunderstands Kaizen

Sometimes, even smart people just don’t get it.


            A university professor has written a column in The New York Times suggesting that the Web is proving to be the ideal environment for a kaizen approach. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand what kaizen is.


            Hal Varian, professor of business, economics and information at the University of California, Berkeley, describes kaizen as “a disciplined process of systematic exploration, controlled experimentation and then painstaking adoption of the new procedures.”


            Not exactly. Our LeanSpeak dictionary defines kaizen as “the gradual, incremental and continual improvement of activities so as to create more value and less non-value-adding waste.”


            To the uninformed, the differences may seem subtle. However, the key point that Varian misses is the underlying lean focus on improvement, on adding value, on eliminating waste.


To illustrate his point about the Web, Varian notes that “it is simple to run a controlled experiment with a Web page. Amazon can show a different page layout to every hundredth visitor and determine in a few days whether the new design increases sales.”


            That’s true. And that kind of experimentation can be very valuable to a business.


            But if you try a variety of Web page layouts, then pick the one that produces the most sales, how is that kaizen? What waste has been eliminated? What process has been improved? One Web page – or more broadly, one marketing strategy – may be more effective than another, but finding a more effective marketing approach is not in of itself process improvement.


            There are undoubtedly ways in which the speed and flexibility of the Web are being used for continuous improvement. The technology can make it possible to, for example, eliminate process steps, reduce cycle time or increase throughput. That’s a point that Varian could have made, but didn’t.


            Varian is an accomplished professional and the author not only of a monthly column in the Times, but also of many books, most having to do with economics and/or information technology.         


            He is not an authority on lean. I would suggest that he study the subject further before he tries to speak like one.


 

5 comments:

Ralph Bernstein said...

IMPORTED
2/16/2007 1:45:58 PM
Re: A Professor Misunderstands Kaizen
by: qa.manager

Great post! This is a clear case of a fallacy of appeal to misleading authority. Use this checklist to avoid this mistake:

. Is this a matter upon which expert opinion is available? If not, then your opinion will be as good as anyone else's. If yea, proceed to the next question
. Is the authority an expert on the matter? If not, then why listen? If yes, go on:
. Is the authority biased towards one side? If so, the authority may be untrustworthy. At the very least, before accepting the authority's word seek a second, unbiased opinion. That is, go to the last question:
. Is the authority's opinion representative of expert opinion? If not, then find out what the expert consensus is and rely on that. If so, then you may rationally rely upon the authority's opinion.

If an argument to authority cannot pass these tests, ignore it!

Rob

www.63buckets.co.uk (lean)
www.qualityhero.co.uk (six sigma)
www.rob-thompson.net

Ralph Bernstein said...

IMPORTED
2/16/2007 2:58:35 PM
Re: A Professor Misunderstands Kaizen
By: dcbliss

I've noticed in dealing with the media locally that it's difficult to convey what "lean" is to someone in 5 minutes or less. Even within the Lean community, there are various understandings of terms and methods (interestingly, one of those terms is "kaizen", which could either be a week-long event, or a continuous improvement philosophy). To demonstrate this phenomenon, just go to lean.org and read a few newspaper articles from across the country. Those of us who know this stuff need to take the media reports with a BIG grain of salt.

Ralph Bernstein said...

IMPORTED
2/19/2007 1:48:46 PM
Re: A Professor Misunderstands Kaizen
By: mgraban

I don't see how Varian missed the boat, at all. You ask where the value is? But if you try a variety of Web page layouts, then pick the one that produces the most sales, how is that kaizen? What waste has been eliminated? What process has been improved?

Isn't increasing sales a way of generating value for the company and for customers? The process of selling is what has been improved.

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