Kaizen is a Japanese word that literally means “good change.” In the context of Lean it represents the idea of continuous improvement.
It is intended to represent a way of life and many small improvements that add up over time. However, the word has also been used to represent a concentrated improvement effort usually spanning a few days to a week.
For this reason, we can give two definitions:
- Kaizen – incremental change making big changes over a long period of time
- Kaizen blitz – concentrated change making big changes over a short period of time
Ordinary kaizen describes a single and typically small change for the better. It could be as simple repositioning a tool at your desk or at a workstation.
To understand what we’re talking about, check out these improvement video compilations by organizations practicing a variant of lean called “2 Second Lean.”
The purpose of kaizen is to involve everyone, everywhere, everyday in making simple improvements. These small improvements add up overtime and result in an extraordinary and never-ending transformation of processes.
Employee engagement on this level is challenging to establish, but once you’ve tapped into the brainpower of all employees (the so-called “eighth waste” of lean) you’ll have tremendous momentum for continuous improvement.
The phrase “kaizen blitz” is used to describe scheduled continuous improvement events. This is when dedicated resources of people, time, materials, and even money are given to a specific improvement cause.
Two simple but amazing examples of this are shown in the videos below.
Example at FastCap
Example at YellowTools
A kaizen blitz typically lasts no longer than a week with a definite start and end date.
In this time a team of employees may completely redesign a workflow, troubleshoot a problem, or accomplish some other impressive feat.
Great results are attainable because of the dedicated resources and hands-on nature of getting the work done.
However, it’s important to understand that a kaizen blitz is not a project. It is aggressively hands-on at the gemba—the place where the real work happens. The blitz doesn’t take place behind conference room doors, and it doesn’t theorize about how things are and how things “should” be.
Lastly, it’s important to understand that many kaizen blitzes can be replaced by individual small improvements made over a longer period of time. Treating continuous improvement as an event can be useful when applied appropriately. However, event-based kaizen blitzes are not equivalent to developing a kaizen culture in which everyone is involved in problem-solving and making improvements daily.
Laying a Foundation for Kaizen: Standard Work
Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, famously said, “Without standards there can be no kaizen.” If you’re interested in creating a culture of continuous improvement, you must learn how to make your improvements stick with standardization.
Making kaizen stick requires basic stability of the process, standard work of the work methods, and a way for management to sustain the gains from kaizen and standardization.
Few organizations learn how to do this effectively, and so we recommend visiting our resource on standard work as well when considering the topic of kaizen.