For many years, the continuous improvement philosophy of Kaizen was most closely associated with industrial manufacturing and high technology. That’s because it was developed by the Japanese auto industry and then later adopted by technology companies like GE and Motorola.
But if you’ve been hearing about Kaizen program management in other sectors over the last few years, you are not alone.
The principals of Kaizen apply to almost every industry and are now widespread in healthcare, construction, software development, education, logistics, and everything in between.
We can’t teach you everything you need to know in one blog post, but we can lay out the fundamentals of Kaizen program management and offer further reading recommendations.
What is Kaizen?
The Kaizen methodology was first introduced to the world in a 1986 book by Masaaki Imai called, The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. Imai had a simple way of explaining the concept. He said, “Kaizen is every day improvement, everybody improvement, everywhere improvement.” The word Kaizen combines the Japanese words for “Good” (zen) and “Change” (kai). Kaizen doesn’t tell organizations how to improve; instead, it presents a philosophy that when adopted, will influence decisions and impact the culture. Its principals are:
- Every process can be improved
- Continuous improvement essential to competitiveness
- Defects and errors are almost always the fault of flawed processes, not people
- Every person in the organization must be involved in improvement
- Incremental changes can have a significant impact
How to Become Effective at Kaizen Program Management
Almost no one is anti-Kaizen. Who doesn’t want to lead an organization that embraces positive change an involves everyone in improvement? Employees generally like the idea as well because it is based on mutual respect and accountability. But moving from a conceptual framework to daily action takes a plan. Here are the keys to Kaizen program management that works.
Implement Lots of Small Ideas
Kaizen management is not about swinging for the fences or coming up with the one idea that will change the industry landscape. Instead, getting to the point where every process is perfect is about gathering and acting upon many incremental improvements and executing recurring improvement cycles. Especially in the beginning, it is essential to reinforce the idea that no operational change is too minor to be considered. The team should be encouraged to document every opportunity they spot and given a software platform within which to do so. Every success, no matter how small, should be broadcast and celebrated as much as possible.
Focus on Processes, Not People
The principle of Kaizen that states that “defects and errors are almost always the fault of flawed processes, not people,” is easy for managers to overlook. People make mistakes, right? Yes, they do, especially when processes are rife with opportunities for error, when training is lacking, when resources are not available, or when workspace conditions are not conducive to success. When defects happen, Kaizen program management means finding the root cause, which will almost always be a process imperfection of some sort. Improvements should be implemented to error-proof processes to avoid future quality flaws.
Under perfect operating conditions, every task, activity, and expense involved in a process would add value to the customer. Value is defined by the customer and includes anything that they wouldn’t gladly pay for. Since we embrace the first principle of Kaizen, that every process can be improved, there is likely waste in your operations. Look for things like excess inventory, unnecessary movement of objects or people, features that customers never order or use, obsessive inspection, and disorderly workspaces. Talk to front-line employees about waste and train them to identify and report it.
Introduce Standard Work
It is impossible to measure the results of a Kaizen improvement if you don’t have a baseline to start from. That’s why it is essential to document the current best practice for doing each task and ensure that everyone sticks to that standard until an improvement cycle such as PDSA or DMAIC is started. It is important that everyone understand that setting standards doesn’t mean that there is no room for innovation; rather, it means that change will be intentional, orderly, and measured.
Support Your Kaizen Program with Software
It is possible to manage a Kaizen program without software to support it, but why make an already challenging proposition even more difficult? Kaizen software provides a platform for collecting all of those small ideas for positive change that you need to sustain your efforts. It supplies workflow functionality to make sure that every idea is evaluated and that those selected for implementation are successful. Importantly, it creates a repository of all of your Kaizen projects so that each new effort builds on the last, making your team smarter with every change.
Of course, this blog only touches the surface of Kaizen program management. If you’d like to learn more, we recommend the following outstanding books on the topic.
“For the professional manager or student of management, a comprehensive handbook of 16 Kaizen management practices that can be put to work. KAIZEN uses more than 100 examples in action and contains 15 corporate case studies.”
“Written by Masaaki Imai, pioneer of modern business operational excellence and founder of the Kaizen Institute, Gemba Kaizen is an in-depth revision of this renowned, bestselling work. The book reveals how to implement cost-effective, incremental improvements in your most critical business processes."
“The essential guide to Kaizen—the art of making great and lasting change through small, steady steps—is now repackaged as an impulse paperback with a dazzling new cover that speaks to its proper positioning as a self-help/inspiration title that’s applicable to business as well."
“In factories around the world, Toyota consistently makes the highest-quality cars with the fewest defects of any competing manufacturer, while using fewer man-hours, less on-hand inventory, and half the floor space of its competitors. The Toyota Way is the first book for a general audience that explains the management principles and business philosophy behind Toyota’s worldwide reputation for quality and reliability.”