What is Kaizen? The Spirit of Lean Manufacturing

Kaizen Continuous Improvement

Kaizen is a Japanese term that is commonly translated “continuous improvement.”

Although the concept of making a single improvement is not novel, the spirit of kaizen is about developing continuous improvement activity on all levels of an organization.

When kaizen thinking is practiced in this manner, it can truly result in a world-class organization.

As it is often said, kaizen is “everyone, every day, everywhere.”


Small vs. Big Improvements

Kaizen has been taught a variety of ways over the years, which has sometimes resulted in confusion over the required size of an improvement.

This confusion is partially due to the rise of the “kaizen event.”

A kaizen event is a focused continuous improvement effort typically lasting one to five days. It is a dedicated, team-based, hands-on activity that yields significant results.


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For some, this has created the impression that an event with big results is the only way to practice kaizen.

This is not the case.

Although events can be strategic and catalytic, a mature kaizen culture honors improvements of the smallest order.

In fact, many organizations have observed that more improvement can be achieved through small daily improvements than event-based kaizen activities.

Here’s two video examples of organizations developing frontline continuous improvement cultures.

Example at Seating Matters

Example at FastCap

Before You Get Started…

There’s a few more things you should know before you cut loose and start making things better, or even do what some call “2 second lean.”

Passion for improvement is good!

It’s just also important to couple excitement with deepening lean awareness and know-how.

Again, it’s not hard to make a single improvement!

The hard part is getting an entire organization of 10, 100, or 1000+ people engaged, aligned, and effective with continuous improvement.

Below, I share the best guidance I’ve learned while practicing kaizen. This includes:

  • The role of standardization
  • The role of management
  • Targeting quality, cost, and delivery (QCD)
  • Leveraging 5S, waste elimination, and standardization
  • Developing scientific thinking


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Standardization as Kaizen’s Foundation

The architect of the Toyota Production System (TPS) and father of lean Taiichi Ohno said, “without standards there can be no kaizen.”

This is a profound statement that is often under appreciated by modern practitioners. One of our chief objectives is actually stability and standardization.

If everything went perfectly according to standard all the time, life and business would be easy!

So standardization is key to your ability to improve. If you don’t have standards in place,

  • How do you know if your change is actually an improvement to the status quo?
  • How do you diagnose and identify problems, since a problem is a deviation from the standard?
  • How do you train or expect others to adopt your improvement?
  • How do you ensure your improvement “sticks” and is sustained long term?

Without standards in place that are effective and followed, you have chaos. In this environment, it’s impossible to predict or control your future.

In the absence of standards, the first improvement is to create a standard!

Only then can you have a baseline for improvement.

This means that every improvement should always result in a new or updated standard.

If you don’t learn the value of continuously standardizing, you’ll never excel with continuous improvement. The two go hand-in-hand!

Management’s Role in Kaizen

Second to getting senior leadership hooked on lean, you must also convert all team leaders, supervisors, and managers.

Why? Because everything lives or dies by management.

If management isn’t driving kaizen, even the passion of your most engaged employees will fizzle out with time.

Aside from dedicating time to training and kaizen activities, management must also focus on two primary functions.

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

When management focuses on these two functions–maintenance and improvement–a robust continuous improvement culture can take root.

Activities that support these functions include:

  • Daily inspection of work areas, methods, and standards
  • Daily follow-up and accountability for kaizen actions and problem-solving efforts
  • Conducting these activities “at the gemba” (i.e. on the shop floor)
  • Standardizing these management activities via leader standard work

Focusing Kaizen on Quality, Cost, and Delivery

Many small improvements should be accepted without question on the basis of simple criteria.

For example, if it addresses safety, makes a task easier, better organizes an area, or simplifies an operation, just do it!

These improvements are worthwhile even if they don’t obviously impact business performance.

However, a mature lean culture will learn to focus many improvements toward improved quality, cost, and delivery (QCD), because QCD is ultimately what a customer pays for and what keeps an organization in business!

Education about how kaizen activities impact QCD is therefore very important.

Leveraging 5S, Waste Elimination, and Standardization

These are the three kaizen activities: 5S, waste elimination, and standardization. Sometimes I call them “the kaizen trinity.”

They are the three most important activities to promote on the shop floor.

Anytime an associate participates in controlling their environment, eliminating any of the 7 wastes of lean, or developing standards of various kinds, they make a difference for the organization and the customer. They participate in kaizen!

Everything else explained in this article is helpful for your understanding and effectiveness. But when it becomes time to execute kaizen, 5S, waste elimination, and standardization are the hands-on activities that are the essence of improvement.

They should be at the forefront of all lean education programs.

>> Learn more about 5S here.
>> Learn more about waste elimination here.


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Practicing Kaizen Scientifically

Continuous improvement should not be random or haphazard!

Overtime, organizations that become lean become “learning organizations”–organizations that are continuously becoming more creative and effective at solving problems.

This only happens as people learn to solve problems scientifically.

Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) is the mantra. It’s a simple scientific process for solving problems and driving improvement.

With PDCA, you can design mini-experiments that rapidly improve conditions.