What Is Kaizen?

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.

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.

However, in its core sense, kaizen does not imply explicitly continuous improvement. Neither was it used in the sense of a philosophy or culture.

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. Kaizen became one of the core practices behind Lean manufacturing in USA and later in Lean management.

Now, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, kaizen is “a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc.”

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

For example, the kaizen culture in Toyota differs from the modern conceptualization.

The Toyota Production System is known for kaizen, where all line personnel is expected to stop the moving production line in case an abnormality occurs and, along with their supervisor, suggest an improvement to resolve the abnormality which initiates a kaizen.

This approach usually delivers small improvements, while the culture of continual aligned small improvements and standardization leads to significant changes in terms of overall improvement in productivity.

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.

The cycle of kaizen activity can be defined as: “Plan ? Do ? Check ? Act”.

  • 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.

The graphical representation of this process as a wheel is known as a “PDCA wheel” or “Deming wheel”. 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 improvements and plan the next ones.

There are various practices you can implement to boost continuous improvement both of the process and the team members. One of them is to provide access to resources (e.g. books, courses, seminars) for those who want to improve and encourage everyone to increase their expertise.

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 encouragement of the development of each. The benefits of an established Kaizen culture are countless. Let’s take a look at the most remarkable ones.

  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 continuously improving Kaizen culture of 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?

  • Kaizen culture differs from the original kaizen meaning.
  • The cycle of kaizen activity: "Plan ? Do ? Check ? Act".
  • Establishing Kaizen culture is a continuous process.

Up Next

Step 2

What Is Continuous Improvement?

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