Understanding the Basics of Kaizen

Key Definitions

1.    Lean manufacturing – A systematic method of eradicating waste in a manufacturing process.

2.    Zenkai – An individual who has contributed to the successful adoption of Kaizen.

3.    Status quo – The current state of affairs of an organization. 

4.    Teamwork – The process of working together in order to realize an objective. 

Definition of Kaizen

Kaizen is a Japanese word that means continuous improvement. It is derived from two Japanese terms – Kai and Zen. "Kai" means continuous and "Zen" means improvement. In some cases, it's okay to translate "Kai" to mean "change" and "Zen to mean for the better or good. Therefore, Kaizen is sometimes interpreted to mean "change for the better."

Kaizen can also be defined as a Japanese management policy that advocates for "continuous slow improvement. It is a belief that all areas of life or work should be continuously improved. Kaizen encourages small changes, day after day.

Some people argue that kaizen equals small changes. But this is incorrect because Kaizen focuses on the great production gains that arise from continuous small changes accumulated over the years. Kaizen requires everyone in the organization to commit to making continuous improvements. Kaizen is built on the following principles:

Efficient processes yield great results.

See for yourself to understand the status quo.

Speak with stats, manage by facts. 

Focus on treating the root cause of inefficiencies.

Work in teams.

Everyone in an organization must commit to kaizen.    

The key principle behind Kaizen is segregation of the various aspects of the production process, analyzing each individually, rectifying the error, and then getting rid of muda (waste), and putting the clean processes back together to attain efficiency.

Kaizen requires improvement in all aspects of a business, thus, everyone - from managers to tactical level workers - must put effort to boost their efficiency. Kaizen also emphasis the need to restructure, change, and reorganize business processes to make them more efficient.

History of Kaizen

After the World War II, US occupation forces were tasked to aid Japan recover from the adverse damage it had suffered during the war. American experts together with Japanese managers searched for ways to enhance productivity, efficiency, and quality of products. 

One of the key members of this innovate processes was Toyoda Sakichi, the founder of Toyota Industries Co. Ltd which was manufacturing automatic looms. In the 1930s, Sakichi stated using quality circles resulting in development of what is now called "Toyota Production System."

Toyota manufacturing system is characterized by continuous improvement in technology, quality, safety, processes, productivity, company culture and leadership. These small, but continuous improvements across the organization adds up to major benefits such as lower production costs, faster delivery, and greater customer satisfaction.

In fact, as posted on the Toyotas Georgetown plant website, "Continuous improvement – kaizen – is the main pillar of Toyota Production System. The main goal of Kaizen is to eradicate "muda" (waste) in all stages of the manufacturing process. Kaizen also endeavors to enhance safety and quality of products. Kaizen focuses on:

Re-engineering manufacturing processes to reduce the physical demand on workers.

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Making tasks easy and simple to perform.

Enhancing speed and efficiency of operations.

Building a safe work environment.

Consistently boosting the product quality."

The huge success of the TPS stimulated other Japanese firms to adopt a similar culture of gradual, continuous change. However, although the western managers knew that TPS was one of the most efficient production processes across the globe, they only started adopting the concept of Kaizen in 1986.

The Western world was introduced to Kaizen by Masaaki Imai, a Japanese management consultant and organizational theorists who in 1985, established the Kaizen Institute Consulting Group to help western managers understand the tools, systems, and concepts of kaizen.

In his 1986 book titled, "The Key to Japan's Competitive Success," Masaaki defined Kaizen as a means of ongoing improvement in working life, social life, personal life, and home life. At the workplace, it means ongoing improvement involving everyone – workers and managers alike.


Business Processes with and Without Kaizen

With Kaizen, not a day goes by without improvement in the organizations. See the figure below which shows the amount of time employees spend on innovation and daily system maintenance, with and without kaizen.

In an organization that hasn't adopted kaizen, supervisors and operators are typically busy with daily maintenance tasks such enforcing discipline, record keeping, expediting parts, and operators are normally busy with production. Only the top level and middle level management spend a small fraction of their time on innovation. No body works to attain continuous improvements.

On the contrary, in a kaizen business, every employee is involved in improvement activities. In a kaizen organization, the cumulative effect of the small, incremental improvement is radical change.

Kaizen and Personal Growth

One of the key principles of kaizen is to improve and/or change the easiest things first. That said, each week you could select an aspect of your life and implement an action plan to boost your performance in it.

Simply choose an area where you feel you could benefit from improvement, analyse the process carefully and ask what you can do to make it less wasteful, better or quicker. It's possible to use kaizen in almost every aspect of your life; from studying to spending more time with your family and doing household chores.

Adoption of Kaizen for personal improvement is well demonstrated by most peak business people, artists, and athletes.  

Kaizen VS Huge One-Time Changes

Instead of sinking hundreds and hundreds of dollars into purchasing machinery, Kaizen leads a firm towards paying more attention to little but important details. Managers and employees are encouraged to improve the effectiveness of the current infrastructures rather than buying new ones.

Kaizen improvements are often accomplished at no or little cost. Unlike one time radical changes, they kaizen improvements do not require complicated techniques and expensive equipment and tools.

Kaizen usually focuses on simplicity by breaking down tedious and complex processes into smooth and small sub-processes and perfecting them. The driving force behind this concept is dissatisfaction with the current situation (status quo), and the philosophy that "no matter how effective an organization is, stagnation will allow its rivals to overtake it."

The culture of being creative to make improvements or solve a problem not only educates the employees, but also it inspires them to go further and apply the same in their lives.

The basic idea behind the concept of Kaizen comes from the Deming's PDCA cycle . Here is a summary of this cycle:

  • Develop an action plan for doing the job better (Plan)

  • Experiment to review the idea (Do)

  • The outcomes are evaluated to see if the idea produces the desired outcome (Check/study)

  •  If so, the current operating processes will be changed (Act)

Kaizen should involve all the employees from the top management to the tea or cleaning crew. Everyone should be encouraged to come up with little improvement ideas on a frequent basis.

The Fundamental Principles of Kaizen

Kaizen is based on the following principles:   

1.    Teamwork – People are the most significant assets. Teamwork leads to greater outcomes and makes everyone feel satisfied.

2.    Change and improvements – People must be open to improvements and change. Ideas from management, workers, customers, and suppliers can result to easier, new, and better ways of doing things.

3.    Small changes – People are more likely to accept gradual changes than total overhauls. Small changes lead to huge results over time.

4.    Old is comfortable but not efficient – People need to understand that change is necessary and good for their organization survival.

5.    Excuses are unacceptable – People should not argue that because they have always done things in a certain process, they do not see the need to change.

6.    Do the right thing the first time – If things are done right the first time, waste is eliminated or reduced.

Reasons for Kaizen

There are two main reasons behind the concept of Kaizen. They are:

1. Pursuit of the pursuit

The Western world is all about the pursuit of wealth, success, health, happiness, and achievement. These are just the outcomes of the pursuit of pursuit – improvement after improvement. People who commit to the principle of progressing or getting better a little each day, soon wonder how they got so far, so fast.   

2. Minimum effective dose

Water boils at 100.0 degree Celsius or 212.0 degrees Fahrenheit. Any higher than this and this is wasted energy. Kaizen involves meditating on the smallest amount of energy or effort required to realize the desired results. You will be amazed at how most of try too hard. The aim of Kaizen is to create a better organization, mind, lifestyle, or body.

Once you attain the state of every day kaizen practice, you become a Zenkai. There are hundreds of Zenkai around you. They are connectors, business builders, fitness addicts, entrepreneurs, musicians, as well as other high-performers.

As the old Zen proverb asks, "Do you know how to construct a great wall?"

And the answer is, "One big brick at a time."

Remember that there is no easy path to success. Kaizen is the path. Emplace a culture of making your business and yourself better each day. Challenge yourself and your employees to start living the Kaizen way. Find out the small changes that you can make in your organization daily to create radical change over time.