Japanese manufacturers have a reputation for making high-quality goods at low cost using maximum efficiency, but it wasn't always that way. Back in the 1950s, "Made in Japan" often meant shoddy workmanship and inconsistent delivery. That's when companies like Toyota began developing corporate philosophies and business practices built around the idea of "continuous improvement" or Kaizen.
In Japanese, the word Kaizen literally means "change" (kai) "for the better" (zen). It's pronounced "KY-zen." In the West, Kaizen was popularized by the Japanese management guru Masaaki Imai, founder of the Kaizen Institute, and the philosophy has been adopted by high-profile American corporations like Ford Motor Company and Lockheed Martin, as well as countless other manufacturers, hospitals, banks and more.
Imai and other organizational experts insist that every type of company and workplace — from restaurants to accountants — would benefit immensely from embracing the Kaizen mindset of continuous improvement, not only to be more efficient and competitive, but to create happier, more engaged workers.
The 5 principles of Kaizen are: Know your Customer, Let it Flow, Go to Gemba, Empower People and Be Transparent. (See the video below for more details on the five principles.)
Lean, Six Sigma and Kaizen — the Many Faces of Continuous Improvement
Before we dive into how Kaizen works, it's important to recognize that Kaizen is not the only continuous improvement game in town. You might have heard of other popular business philosophies and tools like Lean and Six Sigma that are also built around the idea of reducing waste and streamlining internal processes for happier customers and higher profits.
Manny Veloso is a continuous improvement coach, consultant and educator with CI Consulting Services, who explains that programs like Lean and Six Sigma are all part of a larger toolkit designed to improve customer satisfaction while lowering production costs.
"Lean is the granddaddy of them all," says Veloso. "Lean came out of the original Toyota Production System and is all about eliminating 'waste.'" In a Lean operation, "waste" comes in eight different flavors: transportation, inventory, motion, people, waiting, over processing, overproduction and defects.
Six Sigma was developed at Motorola in response to Western companies losing market share to Japanese manufacturers. Six Sigma is more of an analytical tool that breaks down every business process into its component parts and uses statistics to identify points of weakness and waste. Sometimes the Eastern and Western schools of continuous improvement are combined as "Lean Six Sigma."
Where does Kaizen fit in? Many companies that follow a Lean system and use tools like Six Sigma to improve internal processes also employ the principles of Kaizen to promote a "continuous improvement culture" across the organization.
People Before Processes
"For a long time, continuous improvement was focused on the specific tools for achieving it," says Veloso. "The recognition over the last 10 to 15 years is that we have to get people involved. The focus has shifted much more toward culture, getting everyone to buy into the need to continuously improve to stay competitive in this global economy."
And Kaizen, at its heart, is all about engaging everyone in the improvement process, from the CEO all the way down to the entry-level worker on the factory floor. In fact, continuous improvement can't happen unless every team member takes full ownership of their role and identifies ways to make their job environment safer, their workflow more efficient, and their output higher-quality, all while reducing waste and extraneous costs.
When Lean experts talk about "people" as a potential source of waste, they're not referring to downsizing redundant workers, says Veloso.
"The thoughts, skills and experiences of the people doing the job are incredibly valuable," Veloso says. "Many times, managers forget to talk to the people about what their issues are and what they would do differently. That's the waste we're talking about."
Kaizen Events: Go to Gemba
Of course, company executives could jabber all day about a "culture of continuous improvement" without seeing any real results, but Kaizen is more than a philosophy; it's also an action plan. The most powerful tool of Kaizen is something called a Kaizen event, also known as a "rapid improvement event." The idea is to take a few days or a whole week and focus intently on one problem or a set of issues that impact productivity.
"During a Kaizen event, we take five to eight managers, everyday workers, and support people and put them in a room with a problem," says Veloso. "It's different from a meeting. Meetings produce lists and plans and schedules. At a Kaizen event, you're actually making changes right then and there."
The solution to the problem isn't worked out in that conference room. One of the principles of Kaizen is something called "Go to Gemba," where Gemba is the Japanese word for "the actual place" or "the place where it happens." In business terms, the Gemba is the factory floor, the restaurant kitchen, the sales floor of a car dealership — wherever the work is actually happening. A key part of a Kaizen event is seeing exactly how the target problem plays out in a real work setting and to experiment with solutions in that same setting.
"Not every change that you make is good," says Veloso, which is why Lean organizations rely on continuous feedback through a process called PDCA (plan, do, check, act). Once you have a plan and put it in place, it's imperative to have metrics that can be checked, and if the original plan doesn't measure up, to take action to improve it.
Kaizen for Every Workplace
Every single workplace and business environment suffers from its own unique set of inefficiencies, redundancies and downright wastes of time. Just think about meetings alone! What if your organization had a Kaizen event where the goal was to make meetings as short and productive as possible? Do you think you could whittle that hour-long meeting down to 30 minutes? What about five minutes?
Sometimes companies will hold a Kaizen event in response to outside forces. During the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, all sorts of businesses had to figure out which workers could do their jobs remotely, how to keep in-person workers safe, and how to engage with customers behind a mask or a plastic divider. Veloso says that the health care industry particularly shined during the pandemic, taking cues from frontline workers on new protocols for treating patients and safeguarding the public.
"When everything was shut down, they had six weeks and they figured it out," Veloso says.
At the end of the day, creating a Kaizen culture at work is about making every team member feel valued and engaged in the process of continuous improvement. People want to do a good job, Veloso says, and often what stands between them and that goal are various "issues" (a code word for "waste") that can be solved if workers feel empowered to make the necessary changes.