What Is Kaizen?

Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning “change for the better” or “continuous improvement.” It is a concept referring to business activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. 

Kai (Change)
Zen (Good)

A History of Kaizen

The history of Kaizen begins after World War II when Toyota first implemented quality circles in its production process. This was influenced in part by American business and quality management teachers who visited the country. The term Kaizen actually became famous around the world through the works of Masaaki Imai.

In the book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, Imai noted how Japan’s companies were process-oriented, and so fundamentally opposed to America’s results-oriented culture. Breaking down Japan’s success in quality control and improvement, he found that process-oriented thinking promotes transparency and a holistic systems view that is not biased by “carrot and stick” thinking.

Japan had a reputation for cheap but “not so great” products in the 1950s and 1960s. But with kaizen principles applied year-on-year at major firms, the country’s products morphed steadily towards a reputation for consistent high quality by the 1980s.

The philosophy was backed up by the results of kaizen project management at major Japanese firms like Fuji-Xerox, Toyota, Canon, and Honda, which by the 1980s consistently outperformed their American counterparts.

Check out this video to hear an explanation from the man himself:

“Everyday improvement, everybody improvement, everywhere improvement”

How Can I Implement Kaizen in my Work Place?

Kaizen does not apply to one role. It’s not just management that should be seeking continuous improvement. For it to be effective, everyone should be included. On the factory floor, for example, the production line workers may have more of an idea of what works well or needs changing on the line than a manager who works from an office. Regular discussions should be welcomed and there shouldn’t be barriers in place that discourage suggestions.

1. Embrace incremental change

One of the most fundamental tenets of Kaizen is small, incremental change or one percent improvement each day. Small, incremental changes are easier to implement than large, radical changes but they can have powerful cumulative results.

2. Seek feedback

Making small changes over time enables you to course correct if you realize you are heading in the wrong direction. When leading a team, asking for feedback will help you determine if the change you brought helps your employees work easier.

Feedback should be a part of your business improvement strategy. 

3. Eliminate waste

In Kaizen, eliminating waste gives you the resources to create one percent improvement each day.

Eight things represent waste in Kaizen:
1. Overproduction
2. Waiting or wasted time
3. Transportation (another time-based waste)
4. Extra Processing (includes higher quality than necessary processing)
5. Inventory
6. Unnecessary Employee Movement
7. Defective products
8. Underutilized workers (talent, knowledge)

4. Focus on improving processes

Kaizen’s flame was ignited during the Industrial Revolution beginning with Henry Ford. He was an innate strategist who removed waste by cutting Model T’s production time for 87% when he introduced single work stations. He almost single-handedly spearheaded the Industrial Revolution by trimming the fat. Ford created a better production process that lead to improved working conditions, lowered prices for the Model T car, etc.

Toyota’s executive Taiichi Ohno who witnessed the process became obsessed with Ford’s production system. When he returned to Japan, he used Ford elements to create the Toyota Productions System (TPS) – a strategy relying on continuous improvement (Kaizen) as its cornerstone.

5. Work as a team to solve problems

In that same vein, asking proactive, but small questions to train your mind into thinking of a solution is very Kaizen. The answer may not come right away, but these questions can help all team members brainstorm potential solutions and contribute their point of view. Kaizen encourages team participation in solving the problem rather than spending time trying to place the blame.

Some more questions you can ask are:
● How can I make my work 5% more enjoyable?
● How can I do this task 1 minute faster?
● How can I improve the first step of the process to get 5% better results?

When those around you see the value and impact of what you are doing, they will be sure to follow suit.

Ask yourself:

“What can I do in one minute per day to make X better?”

So to summaries…..

Running a successful business isn’t something that has final destination. You could never say
“great, I run a successful business, everything is perfect, let’s leave everything exactly how it is”
You may have a perfect formula at one given time, but everything around you changes and so your formula won’t be perfect forever. Your customers’ needs may change, a product that was popular a decade ago may not be popular now, a new and more efficient way of doing your job may come about. I’m sure 25 years ago lots of businesses thought they wouldn’t need the internet to continue with their business success. Continuous improvement is essential in running a successful business, and it is essential that your whole team is on board.

“The only thing constant in life is change.” 

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