Understanding Kaizen


“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection”- Mark Twain

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The word Kaizen means "continuous improvement". It comes from the Japanese words 改 ("kai") which means "change" or "to correct" and 善 ("zen") which means "good". Kaizen was created in Japan following World War II. The philosophy behind kaizen is often credited to Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Dr. Deming was invited by Japanese industrial leaders and engineers to help rebuild Japan after World War II. He was honored for his contributions by Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers.


The Kaizen philosophy is to "do it better, make it better, and improve it even if it isn't broken, because if we don't, we can't compete with those who do."

Kaizen, also known as continuous improvement, is a long-term approach to work that systematically seeks to achieve small, incremental changes in processes in order to improve efficiency and quality. Kaizen involves setting standards and then continually improving those standards. To support the higher standards Kaizen also involves providing the training, materials and supervision that is needed for employees to achieve the higher standards and maintain their ability to meet those standards on an on-going basis.

Kaizen is a system of continuous improvement in quality, technology, processes, company culture, productivity, safety and leadership. It's used to describe a company culture where everyone, from the CEO to the front-desk clerk, regularly evaluates his or her work and thinks of ways to improve it. The concept is that small steps on a regular basis will lead to large improvements over time. Kaizen is a system that involves every employee - from upper management to the cleaning crew. Everyone is encouraged to come up with small improvement suggestions on a regular basis. This is not a once a month or once a year activity. It is continuous. Japanese companies, such as Toyota and Canon, a total of 60 to 70 suggestions per employee per year are written down, shared and implemented. Suggestions are not limited to a specific area such as production or marketing. Kaizen is based on making changes anywhere where improvements can be made.

In most cases, these are not ideas for major changes. Kaizen is based on making little changes on a regular basis. Always improving productivity, safety and effectiveness while reducing waste.

Steps or Approaches for implementing Kaizen

In Western civilization, kaizen is often broken down into four steps-

  • Assess
  • Plan
  • Implement
  • Evaluate

In the Toyota Way Fieldbook, Liker and Meier discuss the Kaizen Blitz and Kaizen Burst (or kaizen event) approaches to continuous improvement. A kaizen blitz, or rapid improvement, is a focused activity on a particular process or activity. The basic concept is to identify and quickly remove waste. Another approach is that of the kaizen burst, a specific kaizen activity on a particular process in the value stream. Kaizen facilitators generally go through training and certification before attempting a Kaizen project.

Tools for Kaizen

1. Value Stream Mapping- Value Stream Mapping is an analytical Kaizen tool that helps in observing and understanding the core structure of product flow. The analysis involves studying the flow of materials and information, in addition to looking at the process flow for both value-adding as well as non-value-adding activities. This mapping technique proves useful for identifying wastage, problems and areas for improvement.

2. SIPOC- SIPOC is another mapping tool used for analyzing Kaizen events in terms of Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Output and Customers. This cross-functional analysis helps in diagnosing work-flow problems which can be used for improving work procedures, eliminating zero-value activities and optimizing the process cycle time. In addition, it helps in clearly defining the relationship between the above mentioned 5 components of the process.

3. Fishbone Diagram- When stuck in a problem, a fishbone diagram is the best Kaizen tool to use. This tool focuses on analysis by identifying the possible reasons that lead to the problem and dissecting the problem into manageable parts. Each of the reasons is further examined to find at least five contributing factors for that reason. The end result is an extensive list of possible causes, and this comprehensive picture makes it easier to tackle and eliminate the problem altogether. Since, it’s a very detailed analysis it should be used for key problems only.

4. Pareto Analysis- Pareto analysis or what is commonly referred to as 80/20 rule is a technique used to identify high priority problems which must be tackled first. This tool proposes that tackling only the key 20% causes that account for 80% of the problems will cause most of the problems related to the Kaizen event getting resolved on their own. Pareto chart or diagram is a pictorial representation of the Pareto analysis and one quick glance at it will tell you exactly which all problems need to addresses on a priority basis. This is one of the best problem-solving Kaizen tools.

5. 5S- It’s a Japanese tool that focuses on five aspects – finishing, rectification, cleaning, clean and cultivation. It’s one of the popular quality management tools used for addressing quality concerns pertaining to Kaizen events. Besides ensuring total quality management, this Kaizen tool also guarantees cost reduction, timely delivery, safety and standardization.

6. Target Progress Report- This is a fairly simple tool to use, it is used to track the progress on a daily basis and analyze it with respect to the targets. At the end of every work day, it records how close the progress of the work is, to the target.

7. Kaizen Newspaper- A Kaizen newspaper is a document that speaks about the accomplishments till date. It contains a detailed account of what the objective is, what are the problems, who are responsible for solving the problems, the due dates and in what phase the Kaizen events currently are. In short, this Kaizen tool gives you a quick snapshot of what the current progress is.

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