The continuous improvement methodology of Kaizen was once closely associated with industrial and automotive manufacturing. That’s because the Kaizen philosophy originated in the Japanese auto industry and was then later adopted by technology manufacturers like GE and Motorola.
But if you’ve been hearing about Kaizen project management in other sectors over the last few years, you are not alone.
The principles of Kaizen can lead to continuous improvement in almost every industry. The approach is now widespread in healthcare, construction, software development, education, logistics, and everything in between.
You won’t learn everything about Kaizen in any one blog post, but we can lay out the fundamentals of Kaizen project management.
What is Kaizen?
The Kaizen approach 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 everyday 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 mindset 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 faults 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 Project Management
Almost no one is anti-Kaizen. What leader doesn’t want to build an organization that embraces positive change and 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 Many 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.
Focus on Processes, Not People
The principle of Kaizen that states that “defects and errors are almost always the faults of flawed processes, not people,” is easy for project managers to overlook. People make mistakes, right? Yes, they do, especially when processes are rife with opportunities for error, when training is absent, when resources are not available, or when workspace conditions are not conducive to success. When defects happen, Kaizen project 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.
In a perfect production system, every task, activity, and expense involved in a process adds value to the customer. Value is defined by the customer and excludes 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 project if you don’t have a baseline from which to start. 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 completed. It is important that everyone understand that setting standards don’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's possible to manage a Kaizen project 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 project managers 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 going right to the source and picking up a copy of “Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success,” by Masaaki Imai. It contains more than 100 examples and 15 complete case studies.