What is Kaizen? The Spirit of Continuous Improvement

Kaizen Continuous Improvement

Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning “continuous improvement” in English. It is a simple idea, but there is much more to it than meets the eye!

Three things can be said about kaizen:

  1. True kaizen is a small change for the better.
  2. True kaizen involves “everyone, every day, everywhere.”
  3. True kaizen is a way of life.

Kaizen is not about big wins on the part of management, engineers, or specialized people. It’s about the everyday contributions of ordinary people engaging their brains in the task of problem-solving and continuous improvement.

When all associates of an organization are actively engaged in kaizen, extraordinary results can be obtained. In fact, one source states that “80% of potential improvement comes from frontline employees” (book: Idea Driven Organization).

Although smart people and top-down objections might account for 20% of an organization’s improvement, there’s 80% more available in the collective brain-power and creativity of frontline employees.

Introduction to Kaizen Training Video

Kaizen is what unleashes the best in all people. It’s the spirit of a lean culture.

The application of continuous improvement is not limited to any type of process, industry, or job. But below I share two fun and enlightening videos about what kaizen can look like.

Example at Seating Matters

Example at FastCap

The Great Mistake of Many Kaizen Enthusiasts

Kaizen is a popular lean term. It ranks high in Internet search engine traffic, and many people are wanting to “crack the code” and unleash its potential.

But there’s one big mistake many kaizen enthusiasts make: they neglect or ignore the role of standards!

Standardization & Kaizen
Every kaizen should result in a standard! Source: Kaizen Best Practices

Right this moment, there are nearly 8x as many people searching the Internet for how to improve and “kaizen” than those that are searching for how to achieve discipline, standardization, and the ability to maintain what they’ve already achieved.

The consequence is a large majority of people always seeking to do better but struggling to create traction and legacy. They don’t know how to maintain their gains!

True kaizen tackles both of these issues, which are discussed next.

Visit Kaizen Training Videos

Save time, train on-demand, and engage every employee in simple continuous improvement via Lean Smarts video.

The Two Functions of Kaizen Management

The responsibilities of management as related to kaizen can be reduced to two simple functions.

  1. The first is to maintain standards.
  2. The second is to improve them!

An organization that does not learn to define and maintain standards will continually backslide down the hill of continuous improvement.

Kaizen Two Functions
The two functions of kaizen are to maintain and improve standards. Source: Kaizen Best Practices

Therefore, the role of standardization in kaizen and continuous improvement cannot be overstated! In fact, it should be said that the standard is the very thing that we are improving!

(Side note: a “standard” may be physical in nature or non-physical like work methods.)

The second function of kaizen is improvement. This means to upgrade and elevate standards to new levels of performance.

Various strategies are used to achieve improvement and are discussed below. For now, understand that every improvement needs to result in an updated standard, and that this process is endless!

The Three Performance Measures

Kaizen is not aimless! The spirit and aim of continuous improvement is customer satisfaction, and a simple way to qualify this is in terms of Quality, Cost, and Delivery (QCD).

These are the three primary desires of a customer, and the answer to the question, “What does the customer want?”

Quality Cost Delivery
The focus of kaizen is improved quality, cost, and delivery. Source: Kaizen Best Practices

Customers want the highest quality at the lowest price and best delivery.

All continuous improvement strives to achieve these goals in one way or another. Every time an employee engages his hands and brain to improve a process, QCD is improved.

Multiply this 100s or 1000s of times a year, and you get staggering results!

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Save time, train on-demand, and engage every employee in simple continuous improvement via Lean Smarts video.

Three Activities to Engage in Kaizen

By now you may be thinking, “this is all great… but what do I do??!”

Just do these three things! (This is where kaizen ties together multiple lean ideas and tools).

  • Embrace 5S
  • Embrace standardization
  • Eliminate waste

Sometimes I like to refer to these practices as the “kaizen trinity.” They are interrelated and all focused on driving continuous improvement, better QCD, and ultimately customer satisfaction.

Each practice is also simple, low-cost, and accessible by every associate in the organization.

It’s the bedrock of what it looks like behaviorally to engage in continuous improvement every day: 5S, standardization, and waste elimination!

But how do I do this? Scientifically!

A last comment should be made about how these three activities are engaged in.

The more you learn about lean, the more you’ll realize that continuous improvement is a scientific exercise. Lean should not be engaged in haphazardly. It should be scientific, planned, and measureable!

Activities that are done haphazardly inhibit learning and cloud our understanding.

Therefore, whether documented or not documented, in the moment or over the course of time, kaizen follows the simple scientific process of Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA).

Disciplined execution of PDCA thinking among all team members creates alignment, effectiveness, and accelerated learning throughout the organization.

Visit Kaizen Training Videos

Save time, train on-demand, and engage every employee in simple continuous improvement via Lean Smarts video.