Learn about the fundamentals of kaizen, how it improves quality and productivity, and how you can successfully drive continuous improvement in your organization.
Published 25 Aug 2022
Kaizen is a Japanese term which means “good change”, “change for the better”, or “improvement.” As a philosophy, kaizen promotes a mindset where small incremental changes create an impact over time. As a methodology, kaizen enhances specific areas in a company by involving top management and rank-and-file employees to initiate everyday changes, knowing that many tiny improvements can yield big results.
Kaizen’s roots can be traced back to post-World War II, when economic reform consequently took over Japan. Since the Toyota Motor Corporation implemented the Creative Idea Suggestion System in May 1951, changes and innovations led to higher product quality and worker productivity, substantially contributing to the company’s development.
In September 1955, Japanese executives officially started visiting the United States as one of the initiatives of the Japan Productivity Center. Integrating the American way of doing business with a humanized approach eventually pushed Japanese companies into worldwide competitiveness. During the 1980’s, management consultant Masaaki Imai worked with Taiichi Ohno to spread the message of the Toyota Production System (TPS), a result of several years of continuous improvements.
Considered as the Father of Kaizen, Masaaki Imai globally introduced kaizen as a systematic management methodology in Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success (1986). Today, organizations across different industries adopt kaizen as a part of their core values and practice continuous improvement on a day-to-day basis with concepts from six sigma and lean. It is also used with other analytical frameworks such as SWOT.
– Masaaki Imai, Founder of Kaizen Institute
Implementing kaizen in the workplace can be near impossible because management usually expects immediate results. Companies often miss out on improved work procedures and optimized business processes which yield a corporate advantage due to focusing too much on results. To maximize the benefits of kaizen, the following elements and principles should be clearly understood before applying them in your context.
One of the most common reasons kaizen implementation fails is the lack of support and, more importantly, action from leaders. Imai states, “The top management of the company has the most important role in implementing this kaizen approach, and then every manager, then it goes down to rank-and-file employees.” When top management demonstrates its long-term commitment to continuous improvement, managers inevitably follow through on kaizen initiatives and workers personally develop a kaizen mindset.
The employee doing the job would know the best ways to improve how a job is done. Leaders should create an environment where people feel empowered to contribute so that suggestions for improvement can come from all levels and ranks. Encouraging workers to keep adding value to the organization not only boosts morale, it also gives everyone ownership of continuous improvement efforts, which contributes to the successful implementation of kaizen.
Achieving operational efficiency begins where the actual task happens, not from a conference room. A Gemba Walk—derived from the term gemba or gembutsu, which means “the real place”—is usually performed by managers to learn or review exactly how a specific process works and gain insights from workers about its improvement. Gemba Walk Checklists guide the observers in asking relevant questions to determine the root cause of problems and the next steps.
One of the biggest barriers to continuous improvement is clinging to old practices or assuming new methods will fail. The 5S principles aim to enhance workplace efficiency by constantly looking for ways to eliminate waste. Organizations should refrain from thinking that just because something worked before means it will continue to work. The 6S of lean added safety to 5S, emphasizing the setup of preventive controls for safe work operations.
– Taiichi Ohno, Father of the TPS—the basis of lean manufacturing
Since kaizen is a step-by-step process, the journey of effectively implementing it can only move forward by asking the right questions. Learning the key elements and core principles of kaizen sets up the organization for success because it lays the foundation of how results should be expected. Here are key guide questions to help you get started (and keep going) with continuous improvement initiatives in the workplace:
What is the root cause of the problem?
If an ongoing change-resistant culture is bad, then investing resources in solving the wrong problem is worse. Leaders should deny their assumptions about what (or who) they think is wrong and dig deeper into the issue by practicing Gemba walk and root-cause analysis. Place yourself in a better position to identify quality gaps by personally communicating with employees and observing their work first-hand. Remember not to criticize, find faults, and blame people; instead, generously absorb everything that is currently happening because it is a more accurate reality of a typical day in operations.
How can we address the root cause of the problem?
One of the simplest problem-solving techniques is the 5 Whys Analysis, and performing it to determine the root cause of a problem can be effective in formulating solutions that prevent recurrence. Armed with creative suggestions from workers and supported by valuable information from where the work happens, managers can now implement low-cost but high-value improvements which align with the quality objectives of the organization.
Are changes being carried out consistently, by everyone, and in all areas?
The management displays its commitment to continuous improvement when it immediately takes action on the small incremental changes and follows through with impactful long-term initiatives. Walk the talk by personally changing the way you work and taking note of its effects on the quality of your output. Kaizen is for everybody—not just team members—and should take place everywhere, not just on the shop floor. Save time and money from manual monitoring across different sites and all levels of the company by centralizing kaizen management.
What impact do our continuous improvement efforts create?
Individuals tend to give up on implementing kaizen because they do not instantly see or feel the difference their seemingly small actions make in the whole company. The A3 report or 8D report are ideal documents to share with employees because it monitors the performance and measures the effectiveness of implemented changes and is proven to effectively communicate the impact of kaizen initiatives. As a general rule, continuous improvement done right leads to positive, lasting results that significantly add value to the entire organization. Keep the most impactful solutions in mind to know which actions the company needs to stop, start, and continue.
How else can we keep improving?
The road of continuous improvement is not marked by an attitude of perfectionism but a desire for growth—personal and organizational. Achieving 50% of improvement goals now is good; celebrate the win but never stop improving. Be proactive about solving problems in the workplace because kaizen is an unending process. The kaizen cycle aims to keep on producing industry-shaping innovations through years of continuous improvements.
– Sakichi Toyoda, Inventor of the world’s first non-stop shuttle change automatic loom
A kaizen blitz, or kaizen event, is a short-term improvement project designed to accomplish significant results in process quality issues. Kaizen events focus on improving a specific area of the company, such as a business process department of 50 employees.
As a short-term approach with visible benefits within weeks, a kaizen blitz enables project management teams to easily obtain a high level of commitment from the people involved and maintain the interest of top management. Conducting a 5-day kaizen blitz can set organizations in motion to intentionally build a culture of kaizen, but it should not replace implementing the kaizen cycle.
– W. Edwards Deming, Author of Out of the Crisis (1986)
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It takes a long-term commitment of consistently doing incremental changes in daily operations to maximize the benefits of kaizen. Improved quality, productivity, and safety through kaizen management in the workplace results in increased employee morale, customer satisfaction, and company revenue. Taking advantage of smart technology can help organizations easily manage day-to-day continuous improvement efforts and consistently solve problems with cost-efficient solutions.
Embracing kaizen as a way of improving work quality sets up the organization for operational excellence. Since small incremental improvements yield big results over time, begin (or continue) your kaizen journey today with the these kaizen rules in mind. Let Toyota’s Founder encourage you: “Before you say you can’t do something, try it.”
Easily implement and monitor continuous improvement efforts using mobile-ready kaizen tools.
Shine Colcol is a content writer and researcher for SafetyCulture since 2019, mostly covering topics about health and safety, environmental, and operations management. She is passionate in empowering teams to build a culture of continuous improvement through well-researched and engaging content. Her experience in cross-industry digital publishing helps enrich the quality of information in her articles.
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