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Kaizen 101. New to The Approach? Start Here.

Posted by Matt Banna

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Mar 23, 2021 9:16:00 AM

Businessman pressing simple start buttons on a virtual backgroundThe world was first introduced to kaizen's philosophy and practice in 1986 with Masaaki Imai's book, Kaizen, The Key to Japan's Competitive Success. Today, it still holds up as an excellent read for anyone interested in finding ways to make their organization more successful at achieving continuous improvement. 

While kaizen concepts are straightforward, volumes have been written about how organizations build the improvement mindset into operations and culture. Our goal with this post is to give you the basic framework of kaizen and hopefully leave you excited about exploring the ways you might begin to transform your organization into one that consistently exhibits operational excellence.

What is Kaizen?

Masaaki Imai himself explained, "Kaizen is everyday improvement, everybody improvement, everywhere improvement."

The word "kaizen" is a combination of the Japanese words for "Good" (zen) and "Change: (kai). In the workplace, kaizen encompasses practices and attitudes that result in continuous improvement across all functions and departments. The method first gained traction in Japan's automotive manufacturing sector after the second world war. In the decades since, it has been adopted by organizations in every industry around the world.

How to be an Influential Kaizen Coach

The Principles of Kaizen

Kaizen is not a particular practice or technique designed to structure improvement. Instead, it is a mindset that permeates every decision and shapes the culture. Several popular business process methodologies are built upon kaizen thinking, including Six Sigma, Lean manufacturing, and the Toyota Production System. Organizations can practice kaizen with or without these structured improvement frameworks. 

The guiding principles of kaizen are:

  • Show respect for people
  • All processes can be improved
  • Constant improvement is essential for competitiveness
  • Defects and waste are the results of flawed operations, not people
  • Everyone in the organization should be involved in improvement
  • Incremental changes lead to a significant impact

The Surprising Benefits Kaizen Thinking

People often think about kaizen in terms of Lean manufacturing's focus on reducing waste, but that is only one of kaizen's many applications. Besides reducing waste, kaizen-inspired improvements can help organizations improve quality, productivity, safety, customer satisfaction, and more. Many less obvious benefits come from the practice of kaizen, including:

  • Improved employee engagement
  • An "ownership" mindset
  • Reduced employee turnover
  • Better problem-solving
  • Increased cross-functional collaboration
  • Faster decision making

How to Build a Culture of Kaizen

What sets organizations that enjoy the benefits of kaizen apart is engaged leadership. Transforming a culture into one that thrives on improvement requires commitment, training, and resources. To proliferate the kaizen paradigm, leaders should:

  • Be the example. Leaders must become visibly involved in improvement work.
  • Take every opportunity to talk about what kaizen thinking means for the organization.
  • Provide a structure for employee-led improvement with a way to collect opportunities for improvement. 
  • Strive to eliminate the fear of failure that prevents employees from engaging in Change.
  • Celebrate every success.
  • Reiterate the importance of small, incremental improvements.
  • Align employee incentives and goals with the strategy and purpose of the organization.

Key Steps to Create a Culture of Improvement eBook

Technology Powered Kaizen

An organization does not need software to embrace kaizen's ideals, but technology-powered improvement gets results faster and spreads kaizen thinking. If you offer employees a platform to collect opportunities for improvement, manage all improvement work, calculate the impact, and broadcast success, you'll be well-positioned to get the most out of your new kaizen culture. Ideally, the solution will include:

  • Digital huddle boards
  • Impact reporting
  • Notifications and alerts
  • Charts and graphs 
  • Improvement broadcasting
  • Configurable dashboards

Learn More

As we mentioned, excellent materials exist for learning more about how kaizen thinking has led countless organizations to success. Here are a few outstanding resources we highly recommend.

Toyota Kata by Mike Rother (2009) – Toyota Kata covers how Toyota practices continuous improvement and respect for people by centering kaizen as an integral part of the culture.

Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense Approach to a Continuous Improvement Strategy, Second Edition by Masaaki Imai (2012) - Gemba Kaizen is the second breakthrough book by Imai. It delves into how to implement cost-effective, incremental improvements that transform essential business processes.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer Ph.D.(2014) - One Small Step Can Change Your Life covers a simple but potent guide to easing into new habits, overcoming fear, and making insurmountable-seeming goals achievable with small steps.

Creating a Kaizen Culture: Align the Organization, Achieve Breakthrough Results, and Sustain the Gains by Jon Miller, Mike Wroblewski, and Jaime Villafuerte (2013) - This book argues that employees are the most critical asset of an effective organization. Readers gain insight into increasing employee engagement by creating a culture that embraces improvement, including stories from Toyota, Zappos, and others.

We hope this post has you thinking about ways to adopt kaizen in your organization to boost productivity, reduce waste, and engage employees. Over and over, we've been delighted to watch our customers enjoy the ever-mounting benefits of positive change. 

Topics: Kaizen, Improvement Culture, Improvement Methodology

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