What Is Kaizen? Pursuing Continuous Self-Development

Kaizen is the Japanese key for success. Where does it come from? Can you use it in your work? Learn the philosophy behind one of the most beloved business terms.

Introduction

Kaizen has become a modern term and philosophy in the business world. It is one of the most beloved concepts by Lean and Agile change agents, by companies and even employees, who strongly relate to it.

Of course, there is a reason, but let us explore what it means, where did it come from and make sure that we refer to the right thing when we use the word Kaizen.

Kaizen Japenese

What Does Kaizen Mean?

The original meaning of the Japanese word “Kaizen” from the Shogakukan Dictionary could be literally translated as “The act of making bad points better”. The more popular translation is ‘change for better’, also standing for improvement.

While that is true, there is much more to it. Regardless of what you might have heard before, continuous improvement is not the sole definition of Kaizen. Instead, it is the result of it. In fact, the literal translation of continuous improvement in Japanese is “Kairyo.”

Kaizen is more of an internal process that happens within your own mind. The goal is to realize your potential, break the status quo, and this way achieve improvement. With that being said, a more precise way to define Kaizen would be as “continuous self-development.”

Actually, the modern sense of the word originated in the Toyota factories. After WW2 many Japanese businesses were influenced by the methodologies brought by American advisors, sent as part of the Marshall plan.

Although this practice was implemented elsewhere, Toyota is the brightest example of a company that made an excellent practice of continuous improvement, creating effective management systems to generate, capture, and review improvements in never-ending cycles.

Toyota’s overall system of techniques for production management is called the Toyota Production System (TPS). The system rests upon a number of core principles, one of which is labeled Kaizen.

For the purposes of Toyota’s usage (or generally, any manufacturing usage) it largely means continuous improvement through the act of self-development. Kaizen became one of the core practices behind Lean manufacturing in USA and later in Lean management.

Nowadays, in the modern dynamic and unsafe business environment, more and more companies are on the way of becoming more efficient by applying the Lean Thinking. A very important part of it is the Kaizen culture.

Kaizen Culture in Practice

In order to achieve Kaizen, you need to adopt the practice of self-criticism. In Japanese, that practice is known as “Hansei.” This means that you need to hold yourself accountable and find a room for improvement even if everything is going according to plan. 

Adopting this type of mindset will give you the ability to break the status quo and push yourself to the limits. While positive thinking will show you everything as a success, it is the negative emotion of “it could’ve been better” that will give you the motivation to continuously improve and eventually conquer new peaks.

For example, in the Toyota production system, all line personnel is expected to stop the moving production line in case an abnormality occurs. Then, the staff, alongside their supervisors, suggest an option to resolve the abnormality.  

Furthermore, when the project ends, a Hansei-kai (reflection meeting) is held to analyze the entire process including any abnormalities that have occurred. Here, it is important to mention that a Hansei-kai process would happen even if the project was finished successfully, with no issues found along its lifecycle. 

These approaches initiate Kaizen and usually deliver small improvements during the process as well as at the end of it. As a result, the culture of continual aligned small enhancements and standardization leads to significant changes in terms of overall improvement in productivity.

Kaizen cycle

Image credit: Jun Nakamuro

The developed Kaizen methodology includes making changes and monitoring results, then adjusting. Large-scale planning and extensive project scheduling are replaced by smaller experiments, which can be quickly adjusted when new improvements are suggested.

To make it easier to understand, you can apply the famous “Plan >> Do >> Check >> Act” cycle.

PDCA
  • PLAN: Plan your improvements, including setting goals.
  • DO: Put in place the actions required for improvement.
  • CHECK: Measure your success relative to your baseline.
  • ACT: Adjust or tweak your changes.

As you progress through each step, you keep the wheel moving, representing a continuous improvement. When you arrive again at your baseline stage, you take into account your previous developments and plan the next ones.

But remember, this is just the result of Kaizen. Continuous improvement is the external force, but Kaizen is the internal force that drives you to improve regularly and question the status quo.

What Will Kaizen Give You?

An important part of Kaizen culture is that it is perceived as a mindset, a way of life. You will not only improve your process but improve yourselves.

A common good practice is the knowledge sharing between team members and the encouragement of the development of each. In fact, this is also the leadership style that the Kaizen cycle implies. Instead of being satisfied with reaching your own peak, make sure you help others reach you at the top. 

Having said that, let’s now look at some of the most remarkable benefits of having an established Kaizen culture.

  1. Everyone Speaks the Same Language

    Small continual changes and standardization almost automatically take everyone on the same page. Employees are part of the process and of its creation, improving themselves along with it.

  2. Creates a Growth Mindset

    Company values come between the most important components of a successful business. Kaizen is a way to unite everyone among them by sharing the same mindset and approach towards work and development.

  3. Increases Motivation

    Team members are motivated to engage and improve when they see that they are part of the change. When they see their small ideas incorporated in a process of continuous improvement, they are more eager to keep up and contribute.

  4. Better Acceptance of New Ideas

    When your organization is used to accepting the status quo, new ideas and opportunities can sometimes be seen in a negative light. With a continuous improvement strategy deployed, your teams will get used to and appreciate working with the notion that change is positive.

    There are many more benefits to discover yourself. It is worth mentioning that as an important part of the Lean methodology, Kaizen is a necessary component when you embark on the journey towards a Lean company, minimizing waste.

In Summary

The secret of Toyota’s success story has put the beginning of the Kaizen culture of self-development and eventually continuous improvement. The methodology is easy to implement within every professional or personal scenario, which makes it one of the most famous practices nowadays. So what we learned about it so far?

  • Regardless of what the popular belief is, “Kairyo” is the literal translation of continuous improvement while Kaizen is better defined as “continuous self-development”.
  • To achieve Kaizen, you need to develop a mindset of self-criticism, reflect on what you have achieved so far and always look for the next highest peak to conquer.
  • The cycle of kaizen activity: "Plan >> Do >> Check >> Act".
  • Establishing Kaizen culture is a continuous process.

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Step 2

What Is Continuous Improvement?

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