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In business, kaizen is an approach to work in which employees at all levels participate together to identify and achieve incremental improvements. Often mentioned in the same breath as Standardized Work, kaizen aims to find improvements to work standards and processes. When successful, kaizen leverages the talents of an entire organization to work smarter, better and safer.

What Is Kaizen?

Simply put, kaizen is continuous improvement — at least, this is how we have come to understand the concept in the Western world. A loose translation from the original Japanese paints a more nuanced picture:

kai = making change

zen = a way or path; good

To the Japanese, it just means ‘a way of life in which one actively makes changes,’” says Richard Abercrombie, a Master Trainer with the TWI Institute. “The notion is that it’s not an event, or something special. It’s just a way of life.

Kaizen focuses on workers making small, daily changes that result in major changes over time. Though this concept may seem too simple to work, the key is in its longevity. When deployed on a continuum, effective kaizen never ends.

America has tried a lot of different tools that are labeled ‘kaizen’ or ‘continuous improvement,’” explains TWI Institute Master Trainer Mike Braml. “But in Japan, it’s more of a philosophy than it is an action or a tactic.

Braml has observed that some American companies warp the idea of kaizen into a “magic pill” that can achieve short term gains or have an immediate effect on their bottom line. This is coupled with the notion that kaizen is something done to the worker, rather than with the worker — thus, kaizen is not sustained when the training session ends.

Introducing the methodology … is not intended to be something that has an endpoint,” says Abercrombie. “The methodology becomes a production tool used to address common problems that occur all the time. That’s the zen part — it should be a way of life.

If approached with the right mindset and willingness to adapt, organizations that embrace kaizen can achieve two things:

  1. Workers can participate in the discussion and analysis of their work
  2. The ever-present social system is engaged based on this open dialogue and improves the company culture.

As seen from its birthplace in the Toyota Corporation and countless other organizations since, these factors lead to tangible results like streamlined costs, more employee engagement and fewer obstacles along the production lifecycle.

Origins of Kaizen

Kaizen as a formal methodology appeared amid post-World War II rebuilding efforts in Japan. In the early 1950s, American engineer and statistician W. Edward Deming traveled to Japan with a plan to help Japanese manufacturers establish statistical control processes in their factories. What Deming and his associates found at the Toyota Corporation, however, was that factory workers already approached their jobs using the scientific method, so Deming adjusted his process control concepts to a management system he called Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA).

Taiichi Ohno of Toyota, a contemporary of Deming and an experienced former shop floor manager, soon began work on the Toyota Production System (TPS), which remains the gold standard of kaizen and continuous improvement. Incorporating elements from Deming’s statistical quality control and Ohno’s own study of time and motion on the shop floor, he also leaned on the work of Henry Ford. (In Japan, Henry Ford was revered for his innovations in mass production, including the moving assembly line.)

Ohno’s philosophical lodestar was the concept of “some days little up, some days big up” — the very definition of incremental improvement within kaizen.

The Benefits of Kaizen

Kaizen’s strength is in collaboration between workers and management. In a kaizen social system, all employees are encouraged to contribute suggestions for improvements and participate in ongoing discussions and analysis of waste elimination. Interdepartmental teams — including members from production, management or accounting — help to facilitate objective suggestions for improvement.

By giving workers more control, license to think creatively and a better sense of their place in the larger organization, kaizen can dissolve roadblocks like:

  • Instability in processes
  • Lack of employee engagement
  • Physical and personal safety
  • Resistance to collaboration
  • Skills gaps
  • Stalled improvement initiatives

More specifically, organizations begin to see the effects of successful kaizen in:

  • The reduction of unnecessary or overly difficult work
  • Worker experimentation with improvement initiatives
  • More communication and participation from workers
  • All team members gaining the ability to identify waste
  • Increased ownership of work at all levels
  • A safer, more efficient, more productive workplace
  • More edge over competitors
  • Higher customer satisfaction

The gradual, granular nature of kaizen — “a little up every day” — makes it seem less daunting than a massive overhaul of operations.

Another excellent benefit of kaizen is that it does not require a large capital investment. Besides the initial cost of a trainer (if desired), the focus on small, incremental improvements means that employees can learn and improve on the job and won’t contribute to expensive downtime.

Kaizen Methodology vs. Kaizen Process

There are two sides to kaizen: the philosophy and the plan. As we’ve discussed above, the kaizen philosophy focuses on creating a culture of gradual improvement that involves and benefits all parties. The implementation of kaizen is where the integrity of the philosophy can fray.

Establishing kaizen in any organization involves introducing the concept to employees. The Western approach to continuous improvement can sometimes be more abrupt than the creators intended. Embarking on a kaizen initiative like Lean or Six Sigma can look like a week-long, all-hands conference followed by once-a-month team meetings in which workers and supervisors discuss kaizen principles; in between these events, business commences as usual. Nothing changes in this scenario.

The mistake here is thinking that kaizen is a packaged or capsule solution, meant to be presented to workers as a shiny, one-size-fits-all standard and then never recalled or reinforced during work. If incorporated correctly, kaizen is present in everyday reminders. Successful kaizen has no end point.

The following image shows the relationship between incremental and transformational change. In this example, SDCA = Standardize-Do-Check-Adjust and PDCA = Plan-Do-Check-Adjust.

When introducing kaizen, it’s essential to acknowledge that you cannot improve a process you don’t understand. To gauge your understanding of your organization’s processes and challenges, discuss these six questions (5W1H) with your team:

  • Why is this necessary?
  • What is its purpose?
  • Where is the best place?
  • When is the best time?
  • Who is the best person?
  • How is the best way to do it?

Answers to these questions allow you to eliminate the unnecessary (waste), combine steps for the best sequence; rearrange for best flow of process; and simplify for the best outcome.

More detailed questions to supplement this exercise:

  • Why is each step in this process being performed?
  • What is the work being performed? What is its purpose?
  • What value is being added for the customer/end destination?
  • Where is the best place for the work currently being done?
  • Where should the most work be done?
  • When is best time for each step in the process being completed?
  • When should each step be completed?
  • Who is currently performing the work?
  • Who is the best person to be doing the job?
  • How is the work currently being done?
  • How should the work be done?
  • How often is each step in the process being performed?
  • How often does each step need to be done?

In this exercise, the most value will come from your team’s acknowledgement of and answers to the “shoulds.”

The Kaizen Process Steps

Kaizen begins once we recognize that a problem exists and that there are opportunities to fix it. Once we acknowledge the problem, we can begin to act.

A typical kaizen process follows these steps:

  1. Identify a problem or opportunity
  2. Analyze your current process
  3. Develop or identify an ideal solution
  4. Implement the solution
  5. Study the results and adjust what doesn’t work
  6. Standardize the solution
  7. Repeat for the next problem

This is an example of the scientific method, or PDCA, which follows these basic steps:

  1. Plan: Develop a hypothesis
  2. Do: Run an experiment
  3. Check: Evaluate the results
  4. Act: Refine your experiment; then start a new cycle

Tips for Implementing Kaizen

No matter the quality of the instruction, kaizen only succeeds when all employees participate in a culture of improvement. Perhaps most pointedly, this means that leadership and management must be on board.

In a kaizen social system, management’s role is to:

  • Communicate the need to change to their team
  • Demonstrate a personal commitment to improvement
  • Educate and train staff in Kaizen (or coordinate training)
  • Manage the improvement process on a continuum

No matter the size or industry of your organization, keep these tips in mind as you begin your kaizen journey:

Start with training: Hiring outside trainers to introduce kaizen to your workforce can take the pressure off management; plus, gaining an objective view of your organization’s needs and opportunities for improvement is crucial.

Think small: Often, kaizen does not work because supervisors and their teams bite off more than they can chew at the start. Begin your process by assessing something small: the way your team organizes their tools, for example, or the order in which they take their breaks.

Don’t chase perfection: Like the recommendation to “think small,” don’t let perfect be the enemy of good — that’s a sure way to set yourself up for disappointment.

Support kaizen from the top: Any continuous improvement strategy will fail if management does not support it. Even if it’s not explicitly stated, workers can sense when management is fulfilling an obligation with a short-term kaizen “blitz,” or if the leadership doesn’t actively participate to show they take the philosophy seriously.

Question current practices: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is not an acceptable operating philosophy. Even if a process has been working for years, ask your team why it works, and if it could work better.

Get ideas flowing: Pave the way for employees at all levels to contribute ideas for improvement. Facilitate brainstorming conversations between members of different departments or at different management levels.

Keep ideas coming: Make interdepartmental collaboration a regular habit. Establish employee feedback as a part of every process. Keep a record of all employee input and implement their ideas.

Remove barriers: If your organization’s structure prevents collaboration, ideas-sharing or progress tracking, work to dissolve these barriers.

Recognize success: Everyone likes to be acknowledged for a job well done. Congratulate team members for successes major and minor, and make their wins known to the rest of the team.

Measure impacts: The kaizen philosophy would be nothing without tangible results. Keep track of the changes that occur over a week, a month, a year or five years, so everyone from leadership to frontline workers can see the outcomes.

Kaizen Training & Implementation

The key to effective kaizen is sustainability. Any continuous improvement training that takes place in your organization needs to align and adapt with your business as it grows and changes. Standards are the target of kaizen, but they are not meant to be static; the idea is to follow the standards until there is a need for improvement and then question the standards. If kaizen finds a better way, it becomes the standard, which then can be the target for improvement. For kaizen to work, it must be iterative, scalable and involve members at all levels of the organization.

“If you don’t involve the workers, you won’t get sustainability,” says Mike Braml. “It’s not about the results. It’s about the process.” After all, it’s the workers on the front lines who will foster and grow a culture of continuous improvement, passing it on to new hires as part of their training.

The recommended approach to establishing kaizen is to collaborate with an outside trainer. An impartial third party can raise awareness of kaizen opportunities and teach management how to see what they may not even be aware of. Trainers skilled in coaching TWI principles like Job Instruction, Job Methods, Job Safety and Job Relations can help align your organization’s goals with the needs of your employees, and vice versa.

Management buy-in is a must when adopting a new methodology. Lackluster support of kaizen from leadership is a surefire way to sow doubt and disdain among workers. And even though continuous improvement is rooted in the scientific method, people can chafe at the thought that they’re being treated like machines.

“We all have our own perspective,” says Richard Abercrombie. “Even when you look critically at the scientific method, you find that people’s judgement, perspectives, our beliefs and values are all part of it. But science requires a very disciplined methodology to overcome these aspects.”

Taiichi Ohno writes about getting rid of personal preference, personal judgment and rule-of-thumb type structures.

“It’s difficult for Western management to be receptive [to kaizen]. The reaction is often, ‘that’s very existential and philosophical — we’re in business, we can’t run that way!’” says Abercrombie. “Even though the Japanese have a different approach [to business], they’re still practical. But their approach to it is — I would offer — more humanistic.”

If you’re curious about what kaizen would look like in your organization, reach out to the TWI Institute to learn more.

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