What Is Kaizen?
Origins of Kaizen
Kaizen is a concept that originated in Japan after World War II. In the 70s, Masaaki Imai, an author, management consultant, and organizational theorist, introduced the practice to the West through his book on Japan’s secret to competitive success.
Today, the concept is used in many industries, including healthcare, real estate, banking, life coaching, manufacturing, and others. In fact, the so-called “Toyota Way” and the Toyota Production System (TPS) run on Kaizen principles, practiced by its employees from its highest leadership down to its assembly line workers.
The Kaizen Process
Kaizen is a continuous process. From a company’s perspective, it is a strategy of improving every level of an organization’s work in increments but doing so continuously and consistently. Kaizen engages all parts of a business into making small positive changes a day at a time, such as in routine work and employee engagement, which translates to huge gains over time.
Most implementations of a Kaizen process comprise two parts: a philosophy and action plan. The latter establishes an organizational culture of looking for ways to continuously improve. The first step is ensuring everyone’s way of thinking revolves around improving every day—an “onboarding” process.
The action part of the Kaizen process is about implementing specific, actionable improvements at every level. Action plans organize how employees and other partners, such as shareholders, managers, and suppliers at every level of the organization recommend improvements, which are then measured, implemented, and then improved again over time.
The 5 Principles of Kaizen
Individuals who want to understand Kaizen must first grasp the principles behind the concept. According to Masaaki Imai, five main principles underpin Kaizen, namely:
1. Know the Customer
Companies improve consistently for the better by knowing exactly who their customers are. Identifying their segment of the market is a great way to find areas of improvement by elevating the customer experience.
2. Let It Flow
Kaizen focuses on achieving zero waste using an iterative process. By decreasing waste, a company can eliminate overproduction, reduce idle time, and boost efficiency. Less waste means optimizing all resources, including employees and their time, to where they could effect greater outcomes.
3. Go to Gemba
This principle, named for the Japanese word gemba (which means “the real place”) is about leadership and how leaders should recognize that value stems from wherever “action” happens. This principle tasks leaders to understand the operation of every single level of an organization so they can implement continuous improvement.
This principle focuses on empowering teams to support the Kaizen process. For instance, managers must ensure employees are equipped with the goals, tools, and resources to pursue continuous improvement.
For continuous improvement, there should be transparency on every level. This is especially true for data, as this is the metric responsible for measuring improvement or success from a previous benchmark.
4 Common Types of Kaizen
Under Kaizen, everyone in a company is responsible for finding inefficiencies and suggesting ways to address them. Taken together, Kaizen aims to improve a company’s effectiveness, productivity, and safety.
There are several types of Kaizen, or the way organizations approach its implementation. The specific approach depends on the industry (how they want to serve value to their customers) or the needs of the individual. Four of the most common include:
1. Point Kaizen
This is the most common Kaizen type since it can be implemented quickly with little to no planning. In Point Kaizen, contributors can make small measures immediately when they discover something is not working (the “point”). This approach focuses on isolated, small, and/or easy to take measures but with huge impact.
2. System Kaizen
This approach focuses on system-wide problems. It focuses on realizing improvements in a systematic or organized manner, such as through strategic planning over a short period.
3. Plane Kaizen
This type of Kaizen focuses on improving interconnected areas like value streams. For example, instead of having traditional departments, an organization may reorganize itself into families or product lines. Improvements on one line are adapted to other lines or processes.
4. Cube Kaizen
This approach applies to improvements across all interconnected processes or lines. An example is an improvement touching on the entire organization, including customers and suppliers. In Cube Kaizen, there is also a need to continuously improve/change standard business processes.
Real-Life Examples of Kaizen
Some of the world’s most competitive organizations and individuals use Kaizen not only to improve their productivity but also in other areas of their business. Here are some examples.
Toyota is one of the best examples of an organization using Kaizen and one of its first adopters. Their work culture is so suffused with Kaizen that it has given rise to two approaches: the management-level “The Toyota Way” and the assembly-line level “Toyota Production System”.
Toyota’s Kaizen approach has been explored in many books besides Masaaki Imai’s book. In Jeffrey Liker’s book, “The Toyota Way,” he also introduces two Kaizen approaches, “Blitz” and “Burst,” that Toyota implements in its management. Kaizen Blitz is a rapid improvement that focuses on activities and processes by identifying and removing waste quickly, while Kaizen Burst is about Kaizen activities on specific processes in a value chain.
Global aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin is also one of the most famous Kaizen adopters. True to the second principle of Kaizen, the 90s saw the company reduce manufacturing costs by 38%, inventory by 50%, and delivery time by half—allowing them to win the prestigious Shingo Prize for Excellence in 2000.
Sarah Harvey, author of “Kaizen: The Japanese Method for Transforming Habits One Small Step at a Time”
Sarah Harvey is a publishing consultant who catapulted to international fame after the publication of her book based on Kaizen: “Kaizen: The Japanese Method for Transforming Habits One Small Step at a Time.” In this book, Harvey demonstrates that Kaizen is simply not just for improving productivity at the scale of a global company, but it can also be used for any of life’s situations. Central to her thesis on Kaizen is that change is not a destination but a journey—an ongoing process.
Kaizen is a Japanese term that consists of two characters: kai meaning “change,” and zen meaning “good.” It is often translated in English as continuous improvement. While the process was originally meant to improve business and manufacturing, its principles can be applied in many ways and situations, including personal development.
Kaizen can take many approaches, but the goal is the same. Kaizen focuses on improvement, whether it is increasing productivity or incorporating a more humanized approach in the business. However, one of its main aims is to eliminate waste, which comes in many forms in the workplace.
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