What is Kaizen?

Kaizen is a Japanese word which means Change for the Good. In short, it is a term used today for Continuous Improvement.

The meaning was initially used as a Japanese philosophy of continuously improving everything we come in contact with during our lifetime.  Kaizen involves making small changes and overcoming resistance to change.

Kaizen in the business sense today means to improve all facets of your organization and the processes within it using incremental but continual improvement.  Kaizen can be used on any process, task, or function. It can be used for improvement for administrative tasks, maintenance, engineering, business, and logistics just to name a few.

Kaizen eliminates waste by removing Non Value Adding Activities which result in improved standardized systems, efficiency, processes, quality, delivery, service and cost savings.  Kaizen is considered to be the “building block” of all lean production methods.  To get to the future state, you undertake a workshop that looks at each element of the current state and sees what can be done to make it better.  This workshop is the Kaizen experience.

There are lots of discussions about Kaizen philosophy and how to make it happen in the workplace, as being an intricate part of the company culture for all people within the organization.  In fact the success of Japanese manufacturing is often attributed to its integration within Japanese production.

Before you start a Kaizen workshop, you need to prepare for it.  Ensure that the project is clearly defined – in effect, what are the limits to the scope of your review.  You will need a broad base of attendees made up of senior managers, value stream owners (a local manager or similar position with responsibility for the process), some people who work in the area being reviewed, and some objective contributors who can comment without prejudice to the process.

The Kaizen will include the activity mentioned above to identify the current work processes and will normally run through a week, beginning with an education on Lean, then moving to develop the current state, process analysis change identification, and future state outcomes.

In fact, you will repeat this activity time and again until you have exhausted all potential changes that can be made to the existing processes.  When you have completed all this activity, you will be left with a future Value State Map identifying the future processes to be implemented.  Sometimes the changes required as part of the Kaizen are obvious to identify, but there are a number of tools and methods used within Lean to help identify the waste that can be removed.

These are some common questions you would ask related to Kaizen:

  • Is the change being accepted as the new process?
  • Which relevant procedures, SOPs and standard work documents have been updated?
  • How has the change been communicated to all who need to know?
  • Does this improve safety, quality turnarounds, or costs? Who was consulted about the change? Such as Supervisor, Manager, Director, Technical expert
  • What were the outcomes from the change?

Explain – “Lean” versus “Six Sigma” versus “Kaizen”
Lean, Six Sigma, and Kaizen are all improvement methodologies. They vary in application but all help with providing the framework for improvement of processes.  Lean and Six Sigma are longer duration endeavors. Kaizen is more a continuous improvement mindset as opposed to a specific tool. Kaizen uses personal creativity and ingenuity to identify problems and then develop and implement ideas to solve the problems.

The best method is whichever method is appropriate for the project. They all have specialized tools and none of them fit every job or process you are trying to improve.  There are instances where Lean principles are most appropriate, others where Six Sigma is the best fit, and still more where Kaizen is the best application.