The Kaizen process is a brilliantly simple approach to business operations. Kaizen is a Japanese word that means “good change.” The methodology is credited with helping the Japanese auto industry recover and outpace the competition following World War II. Organizations that embrace it can reduce errors and defects, speed up production, deliver more customer value, and improve employee satisfaction.
When the Kaizen process is implemented, every person in the organization has a role to play. Before we describe them, let’s revisit the philosophy of Kaizen.
The Kaizen Way
While it has been described in several ways, the basic principles of Kaizen are:
- Improvements are based on incremental changes, not significant disruptions or revolutionary inventions
- Ideas come from employees because they are closest to the customers, products, and processes
- Employees take ownership and are accountable for improvement
- Feedback between leaders and employees is a two-way street and always active
- Improvement is measurable and repeatable
With these core values in mind, it becomes clear that everyone in an organization should be involved in the Kaizen process. Here’s how each group can contribute.
The executive leaders have the task to set the stage for Kaizen and provide the necessary support and resources. Their responsibility is to create an environment that is perfect for positive change. Senior leaders kick off the process of strategy deployment, often using the Hoshin Kanri approach to align goals and improvement efforts. The success of Kaizen is mainly dependent on employees believing that the leadership team is dedicated to the Kaizen process and that it isn’t just another passing management fad. Leaders at this level must also be willing to make investments in training, software, consultants, or whatever is needed to support organizational transformation.
Department Managers and Supervisors
Front-line employees will look to their departmental directors and supervisors for the example of how the Kaizen process should change daily operations. It’s up to these mid-level leaders to demonstrate how to use Kaizen techniques like DMAIC, Catchball, the 5 Whys, and others. They are also in the right position to coach their teams, underscoring the importance of improvement work and how it will impact employee performance evaluations. They are also responsible for making sure that Standard work is in place and consistently applied.
The people who are in the best place to identify opportunities for improvement, suggest solutions, implement changes, and ensure results over the long-term are front line employees. The Kaizen process can’t happen without engaging the people who do the work in making the processes better. In order for every team member to be useful, everyone should know how their work relates to the strategic goals of the organization. They should have the power and the support to report and respond to process breakdowns or quality problems. This means that leaders need to eliminate the fear of failure and develop a culture of transparency and trust. It should be clear that innovation is not something that is handed down from the top of the org chart, but rather something that happens at the Gemba every single day.
Not everyone thinks about HR’s role in Kaizen, but we think it is important to note. The Kaizen process should be top of mind during hiring. Each potential employee should be vetted for their potential to fit into a culture of improvement. They don’t need Kaizen experience, but they should have a spirit that is open to feedback and a willingness to share their ideas for positive change. Aside from hiring, HR also is often involved in Kaizen training and employee performance assessment.
Kaizen Event Roles
The bulk of this post is about daily Kaizen, but many organizations also make improvement events part of their Kaizen process. A Kaizen event is a short burst of improvement activity (3-5 days) dedicated to solving a pressing problem or implementing a prime improvement. When a Kaizen event is organized, the following roles and responsibilities should be considered.
- The Executive Sponsor – She will approve the event, help secure the necessary resources, and work to remove any challenges that get in the way.
- The Facilitator – The facilitator’s job is to keep the team organized and on track. They are also responsible for documentation and conflict resolution.
- The Process Owner – The person who oversees the process daily provides insight into the challenges to be addressed and helps vet possible solutions.
- The Process Operators – The members of the team that do the work are crucial to the success of the Kaizen event. They will help map the current process state, identify opportunities for improvement, and implement the changes to be tested.
Hopefully, it is clear that the Kaizen process is a team sport. There’s a way for everyone to contribute, making the impact and rewards of Kaizen widespread.