A Mindset Shift with Kaizen

Key Definitions

1.    5-whys – This is an interactive interrogative method used to determine the cause and effect of a particular problem. 

2.    Pull system – A manufacturing system that is used to reduce waste in the manufacturing process. It requires the firm to produce in response to actual consumer demand, not estimated demand.  

3.    Just-in-time – An inventory technique that firms adopt to boost efficiency and reduce waste by receiving materials only when they require them in the manufacturing process.


Current Mindset versus Kaizen Mindset

When implementing Kaizen, many individuals focus on people and process improvement tools and technique, but they overlook the need to develop a kaizen mindset. This is wrong because kaizen is not just a tool for attaining continuous improvement, it a mindset change – a way of thinking and doing things. This article discusses the primary aspects of kaizen mindset.

Kaizen originates from the bottom

If you think that Kaizen will be business as usual – where management will weigh the merits of each idea – then you are in for a huge failure. Adoption of Kaizen is most successful when ideas and plans come from the bottom-up not top-down. Only those in the actual workstation - doing the task - truly understand exactly what works or what doesn't work for them – management doesn't have such intimate exposure and strategies for improvement originating from them don't lead to true improvements.

For example, in Toyota, during vehicle assembly, they have a handcart filled with all tools they require for this particular job arranged systematically: no more, no less. The idea is to reduce movement as well as the time required for employees to find tools, hence boosting efficiency. The idea came from factory employees on the floor, who understood their pain and what needed to be improved to make their work more efficient and more comfortable.

So, give everyone in your organization a chance to suggest improvement ideas.

Kaizen is about change

If you say that you want to change for the better in one hand, but on the other one you think that change is not necessary, you should stop Kaizen immediately.

Being a Japanese word, Kaizen means constant or continuous improvement and any kind of improvement involve change. Still, note that kaizen should not be implemented as a fad, it's a long-term strategy and the goal is to move towards incremental improvements which together add up to radical wins.

Kaizen is about freedom

Kaizen is not about getting permission to make changes – it is about empowering employees to change things for the better on their own. Employees need to have the freedom to experiment and to take the necessary actions to make things better. The biggest mistake that a firm can make is to formalize Kaizen such that getting things done becomes bureaucratic and a hassle.

For example, Google provided a 20 percent time idea which recommends that once a week every employee should spend time on side projects. They usually have a field day where they are encouraged to generate ideas on how they can improve their workplace.   

Kaizen is a continuous commitment

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Kaizen - An Introduction course?

Kaizen is a continuous process that never ends. It is the pursuit of perfection. Generally, it is impossible to achieve perfection: you can always improve things, so Kaizen is something that needs to be on the go at any given time.

Kaizen involves making mistakes

In the Western thinking, sadly mistakes are usually treated as a reason to discipline and punish the doer. In the Kaizen and Japanese thinking, mistakes are considered a positive thing – something to learn from.

For example, in a western organization, a SMALL Mistake often leads to a chat with (threat from) THE Boss, and even dismissal or disciplinary action. In Toyota, a mistake often leads to conducting a thorough 5-whys analysis to determine the primary causes of the problem and develop solutions to prevent it from happening again. In America, the employee would lose the job. In Japan or Toyota, the employee would improve the job.

The Japanese see this as a chance to improve, and if you intimidate or fire the employee who knows where he/she messed up, what hope would you have to prevent re-emergence of the same mistake?

Kaizen mindset uses a trial and error principle. Nothing is perfect, and most of the times hundreds of refinements need to be adopted before an improvement is realized and duplicated to other departments. A Kaizen Mindset Leader encourages this principle while a Current Mindset Manager does not risk the trial and error method.  

Kaizen Leadership Mindset

Living the above five points will help leaders to adopt the Kaizen Mindset. But in this section, you will learn six characteristics that bring out the best Kaizen Leadership Mindset.

1.    Every day improvement – A day should not pass without some form of improvement being implemented somewhere in the organization.

2.    Customer-driven improvement – Any Kaizen project should result in increased client satisfaction.

3.    Quality first, profit follows – Organizations can prosper only if their clients are satisfied.

4.    Problems are everywhere – Realization that all organizations have issues and establishing an organization culture where an employee can freely admit these issues and suggest solutions is the best way to implement Kaizen. 

5.    Problem-solving – Problem solving should be seen as a collaborative approach and a cross-functional system.

6.    Emphasis on process – Developing a management approach that nurtures process-based efforts for improvement is key.

Kaizen Mindset is about continuous improvement as well as striving for a state of perfection, where all action creates value for citizens and customers. Of course, total perfection cannot be obtained, but the Kaizen-thinking organizations are always searching for ways to do things better.


They try to reduce waste which makes them less able to realize their goals and use their limited resources in ways that do not lead to the firm's overall goals. As you will see below, there are different types of waste that affect an organization.

Successful Implementation of Kaizen

These are the things that all managers should prepare for to make kaizen implementation a smooth experience.

Be ready for resistance

People prefer the status quo – they do not like to change the norms. According to a study conducted by the Lean Enterprise Institute or LEI, a management research firm, resistances, especially from the middle management, is the number one obstacle to implementing Kaizen.

38% of the respondents to this annual study about business system implementation placed middle management at the top of causes of kaizen failure, followed by lack of know-how at 31%, and employees' resistance at 27.7%. This was in contrast to the previous year (2014) survey that cited backsliding as the number cause of lack of improvement, followed by lack of know-how, and then middle management resistance.

Correct doing and training

All employees should be well trained to eliminate conflict and deliver a group that can facilitate effective improvement. This means learning by doing first and then training later.

For example, the Toyota system always recommends its employees to learn by doing things. In the early stages of Kaizen implementation, the firm recommends at least 80 percent doing and 20 percent training as well as information. Their system involves putting the employees in different situations and letting them develop solutions to different problems.

Build on organization's roots

Toyota has its unique way. Organizations need to have unique ways too. For instance, when Toyota works with organizations to teach TPS, they always insist that the organizations develop their own systems. Someone did something correctly to get your organization to this point. Build on that. Improve on your organization's heritage to identify what you stand for.

My way or the highway

A demand for unquestioned following or obedience and the "my way or the highway" mindset can hinder Kaizen, resulting in a reluctance to bring forth a new idea out of fear of retaliation. A dictatorship may thrive in an organization with a few employees, but it is impossible for one individual to possess all the skills and knowledge required to run a complex organization. It is the front-line employees that have the best view of how the processes works and what needs to be improved and their views must be considered for Kaizen to happen.

Fat on resources

This might seem counterintuitive, but frequently, it is the overabundance of resources, especially human resources, that keeps a firm from recognizing the need for change. If an organization has unlimited resources, then waste is often ignored and problems are solved by more committees, more positions, and more money instead of solving the root cause of the problem.

For example, after the World War II, much of Japan's economy was ruined and Toyota firm faced the difficult decisions that arise with few resources and many problems. Because they could not afford any waste they decided to design a new production system that later came to be referred to Just-In-Time. Therefore, lack of resources or inadequate resources made Toyota to change – innovate.

Ill-equipped or unmotivated workers

One thing that is unique about Toyota firm is their hiring process. While many organizations approach filling production line positions as simply a number game, this firm looks for highly motivated and talented people to fill even the basic positions. They understand that human resource is more important than other resources and need inducements to keep from slipping into comfort mindset. Toyota ensures that Kaizen is effectively applied through hiring quality employees and continuously providing them with education and training opportunities.