Kaizen: A Culture of Improvement

Kaizen was brought into the public light when Toyota implemented it in their factories. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The term Kaizen became famous around the world through the works of Masaaki Imai. Born in 1930, Masaaki Imai is responsible for bringing Kaizen to the West with the help of American management and productivity consultants. Along with W. Edwards Deming, Imai argued that quality control should be put more directly in the hands of line workers. He officially introduced a systematic methodology through his best-selling book Kaizen, the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success.

What is Kaizen?

It all started when the Japanese car manufacturing company Toyota led the charge for working on production issues as soon as they occurred. The entire production line would be stopped so that staff could identify a solution. Once implemented, it was ensured that the problem wouldn’t occur again. Through applying Kaizen principles, Toyota became one of the most efficient and reliable manufacturing companies in the world. Other companies also wanted to emulate Toyota’s results and they started to implement the principles of Kaizen within their organizations.

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The concept consists of principles in two key areas: continuous improvement and respect for people. The Japanese word “kai” means “change” and “zen” means “good philosophy.”

The Japanese words: ‘kai’ means ‘change’ and ‘zen’ means ‘good philosophy.’ (Image: Majo Statt Senf via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Japanese word ‘kai’ means ‘change’ and ‘zen’ means ‘good philosophy.’
(Image: Majo Statt Senf via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Kaizen can be applied to just about any field of work. The idea is that instead of encouraging large, radical changes to achieve desired goals, Kaizen recommends that companies introduce small incremental improvements, preferably ones that could be implemented on the same day.

An individual can apply Kaizen on a personal level. Take a small issue you face in life, and focus on it for a week. Say, for example, you work in Public Relations. If you practice smiling more, after a week, it will become second nature, which will naturally help in improving your people skills. Next, pick another area, and focus on improving that skill for a week. The idea is that by heaping up small things, one can eventually achieve something great. Just think about how much you could accomplish in a year.

The system of Kaizen is multidimensional and works from top levels to the grassroots. Here are just a few guidelines to bring about continuous and holistic improvement in your company.  

Ten principles of Kaizen

  1. Open your mind to change.
  2. Be prepared to solve problems.
  3. Always attack the processes, not people.
  4. Discard perfectionism, and use the approach of continuous, adaptive change.
  5. Look for solutions to mistakes.
  6. Create a work environment in which everyone feels empowered to contribute.
  7. Ask “why” many times (not who) until you get to the root cause of problems.
  8. Knowledge talks, wisdom listens. Don’t accept information and opinions from lots of people and overwhelm the process.
  9. Be creative and economical.
  10. There is no ceiling set for your improvement.
The system of Kaizen is multidimensional and works from top levels to the grassroots. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)
The system of Kaizen is multidimensional and works from top levels to the grassroots. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Seven points for continuous improvement

  1. Seek the involvement of employees through valuing their input on issues. Certain groups of people may be put in charge of gathering and relaying information from a wider group of employees.
  2. Upon feedback from all employees, list problems, and take note of potential opportunities.
  3. Encourage employees to offer creative solutions. Encourage and accept “out of the box” ideas. Pick winning solutions from the ideas presented.
  4. Implement the solution, with everyone participating in the rollout. Create an experimental trial or take other small steps to test it out.
  5. Check for improvements, and promote the winners. Observe how to best keep ground-level workers involved. Ascertain how successful the change has been.
  6. If results are found to be positive, then adopt the solution throughout the organization.
  7. Repeat. By repeating Kaizen on an ongoing basis, the goal of continuous improvement is achieved.

The benefits of Kaizen

  • Gradual improvement creates a gentler approach to change.
  • Kaizen encourages the investigation of processes so that mistakes and waste can be reduced.
  • Because errors are reduced, inspection needs are reduced.
  • Employee morale grows because Kaizen offers a sense of worth and purposefulness.
  • Teamwork is boosted as employees are encouraged to think beyond the specific problems of their own department.
  • Short- and long-term improvements are encouraged within a workable system.

As a philosophy and a way of being, the principles of Kaizen allow steady growth with the goal of achieving something unique and good.

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