Kaizen is a Japanese term typically translated to continuous improvement that covers the processes and theory for ongoing improvements. The theory (and term) was introduced to the West by Masaaki Imai in his legendary book, Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. Imai outlined the following principles of kaizen:
Good processes bring good results
Go see for yourself to grasp the current situation
Speak with data, manage by facts
Take action to contain and correct root causes of problems
Work as a team
Kaizen is everybody’s business
Lean and kaizen is often used interchangeably. The purpose of Lean is to reduce waste, whereas kaizen focuses on all types of continuous improvements, not just waste removal. Too often organizations adopt a specific aspect of Lean (e.g., 5S) and decide the firm is adopting kaizen. In some aspect this is correct; however, kaizen is a mindset and foundation for corporate culture. It is not (and should not be) a one-off project, but a long-term commitment to improve all aspects of the organization, based on customers and data, with systematic processes.
A key aspect of a kaizen culture is the focus on team work and all levels of employees striving to make incremental improvements in every aspect of the business. Utilizing the collectively skills of all employees creates an extremely powerful driver of improvement, and competitive advantage. Just look at Toyota!
Kaizen creates a customer-centric culture that teaches employees to think differently. In addition, a kaizen mindset creates efficiency and reduces waste resulting in financial savings that can be shared with the customers (e.g., lower prices) and standardize routine tasks to allow more time for creativity.
Focused on proactively finding ways to improve the business, continuously encouraged by leadership to improve, and a strict adherence to use data along with experience to drive change, kaizen creates a philosophy throughout the company to grow and change. Problem solving is the foundation of kaizen and is typically comprised of the following steps:
Identify an opportunity
Analyze the process
Develop an optimal solution
Implement the solution
Study the results
Standardize the solution
Plan for the future
The mindset also ensures all employees think in terms of three time periods:
Now: Present condition
Next: Desired state
New: How to reach that state
The following Japanese characters (i.e., kanji) show the definition of kaizen and its true meaning (borrowed from the Kaizen™ Institute). So if you want to develop a powerful organization based on change, learning, quality, and removing wastes, look into developing a business model based on kaizen. Remember, it won’t happen overnight, but great things happen in small steps.