We can define kaizen very simply from its original Japanese as meaning “change for the better”, but what does this actually mean as a kaizen philosophy?
Kaizen began its life shortly after world war 2 when the US sent a number of advisers to help the Japanese rebuild their economy, one of these advisers Dr. Deming is often credited with the ideas behind Kaizen due to his 14 points for management, point 5 stating;” Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.”
The training within Industry (TWI) organization also had a training program that promoted the continual improvement of processes through using workforce suggestions (“how to improve war production methods”, later becoming “how to improve production methods”) and this is credited by Masaaki Imai as being the origin of kaizen also.
Masaaki Imai wrote the book “Kaizen: The Key To Japan’s Competitive Success” which very much reintroduced the ideas back to the west. He describes Kaizen as being daily incremental changes to the process for the better.
Kaizen as seen by the Japanese (especially Toyota as part of the Toyota Production System TPS) is a method of involving the workforce to come up with many ideas for improvement, each employee is expected to come up with (and implement) 3 to 5 improvement ideas each and every month. The power of this method is not in the individual small improvement but in the combined power of many hundreds of small improvements moving the business forward constantly.
These ideas and the many improvements are expected in every area of the company from suppliers through to customer delivery and from cleaner upwards to CEO. Every area and every process requires to be constantly improving if a company is to constantly cut costs, improve quality and produce products and services quicker and thus win and keep business.
Many companies in the west still have not mastered the art of (and realized the need for) involving the entire workforce in improvement; many consultancies therefore “sold” kaizen not as a process and philosophy of continuous improvement but as a kaizen blitz technique to rapidly improve a process in the space of a few days (typically a weeklong event.)
These Kaizen events (Kaizen blitz, kaizen burst, focused improvement teams, kaizen workshops, etc.) are led by expert facilitators to create a step change improvement in a short space of time, often in response to a crisis within a company rather than as a need to continually improve their processes.
They are often criticized by their detractors as not being as effective as “true Japanese kaizen” but in my mind they have their place if run correctly. Often these events are just one off events without any real support or change in culture so quickly revert and the gains are not sustained, used correctly though as an ongoing program of events they can make significant improvements to a business.
Sometimes a business needs to make a step change in its operations and many small improvements over a long period of time may not be enough, used appropriately Kaizen blitzes are a powerful improvement tool used within a culture of continual improvement. As a method to impose change on an unconvinced and uninvolved work force however they are doomed to eventual failure.
The need for Kaizen continuous Improvement
Typically a consumer will want a product or service that is the “best” quality, lowest price and available when they want it (more often than not “right now.”) If you are the market leader today but fail to continually improve your product and service eventually a competitor will either make it quicker, better or cheaper and take your business.
This is why a business must continually improve to maintain their market share, not wait until they lose their position and then make panic reactions to gain back what they have lost.
Continuous Improvement vs Corrective Action
Some people also see kaizen to be about using teams to solve problems within the company, while using teams for problem solving is the right approach it is not Kaizen nor is it true continuous improvement. Kaizen and pure continuous improvement are very much about making improvements for the sake of improvement not for correcting a problem. Correcting a problem tends to just maintain the status quo whereas kaizen continuous improvement pushes the company a little closer towards perfection every day.
What does Kaizen seek to achieve?
Kaizen seeks to eliminate problems associated with the wastes inherent within our processes, not just the tradition seven wastes or Muda, but also Mura (unevenness) and Muri (Overburden.) The view of any process should be that it is wasteful unless you cannot find a way to eliminate it or do it in a more economical way, everything should be continually challenged and tested.
You harness your teams ideas and creativity to try to find no cost or very low cost ways of making improvements; ideas that cost many thousands requiring the investment in new technology or more machinery are typically flawed and indicate a lack of creative thought to solve a problem. With kaizen we intend to not spend money or add people, steps or more waste to a process.
Benefits of Kaizen
Beyond the obvious benefit of actually improving your processes; kaizen engenders team working and ownership when used correctly. Teams have to take responsibility for their areas and are able to make improvements to better their own working experience as well as making things more efficient and saving money for the company. Most people actually want to be successful and proud of the work that they do, kaizen helps them to achieve this to the benefit of the organization.
Kaizen can be implemented in a number of different ways but all require full support from top management as with any other improvement initiative. If the required changes are not supported and seen to be supported by senior managers involvement then they will fail.
Within Toyota the line supervisor and line managers review and approve all of the improvement suggestions that their employees make, they have the authority to implement most changes without seeking higher authority. More senior management review these changes and also approve more wide sweeping changes. If anyone wants to deny an improvement they had best have a very good reason.
Unless the management are seen to be pushing for improvements and giving support for them then the ideas will cease to flow. Continual Improvement Kaizen is about individual and team creativity and harnessing the ideas and knowledge of everyone within the organization.
There are a few ways in which Kaizen can be implemented, but it should be remembered that kaizen is a positive push for continual improvement, a suggestion scheme that receives one suggestion every year is not kaizen no matter how wonderful that idea may be.
Suggestion schemes are a simple and easy way to drive kaizen, but each area should be measured on the number of suggestions made and of course implemented. Supervisors and managers effectiveness should also be measured by the number of ideas that their teams put forward. A supervisor or manager that cannot motivate his team to come up with ways to improve or fails to support them through implementation is not going to help your company in the long run. Suggestion schemes should not be allowed to be a passive approach to kaizen, there should be a positive drive to gain suggestions from all involved.
Quality circles and self directed work teams are another effective way to drive kaizen, again measured on the number of improvements suggested and implemented not just problems solving team work. These teams are made up of the people working in a specific area, usually led by the area’s supervisor or team leader and supported by the manager of the area. The team leaders role is very important and they should receive significant training in problem solving and analysis techniques to help the team to solve problems and make improvements.
Kaizen does not have to be bureaucratic, there should not be a need for multiple forms and approvals to be sought if changes only impact the immediate area, teams should have the authority to go ahead and make them.
There are various other types of kaizen that you can employ within your company; you can have tool or area specific kaizen activities such as;
Kaizen events can be focused around almost any tool and any aspect of your business, but all require careful planning if you want to ensure they are successful.