Kaizen is a Japanese word comprised of two separate words, Kai and Zen, translating to mean "change for the better" or "continuous improvement." In Lean manufacturing, Kaizen is the practice of continually making small, incremental improvements for a safer, more productive, and efficient workplace. This foundational Lean manufacturing method stitches continuous improvement into the fabric of your company's culture, which means managers, team leaders, and workers alike will be constantly searching for ways to improve processes and tighten standards.
The Process of Continuous Improvement (Kaizen) In The Workplace
Continuous improvement is the process of constantly making things better than they were before. Kaizen can be defined as the philosophy and practice of continuous improvement. It refers to the practice of looking for ways to improve work processes on a regular basis. The practice involves small, incremental changes rather that large changes. With Kaizen, all people within the organization look for possible improvement opportunities, not just managers or executives.
- No structure to the improvement process; few set procedures
- Goals are not defined or are vague/difficult to measure
- Changes are made to processes infrequently; little reflection on their effectiveness
- No plan exists for improvement; improvement is haphazard
- Consistent, ongoing process of improvement takes place
- Improvement process has clearly defined, measurable goals
- Constant review of successes occurs and the improvement process itself is evaluated
- Consistency of the process leads to new, higher goals
East vs. West
Masaaki Imai believed that the East and West used the concept of Continuous Improvement differently. Imai believed that the Japanese (in the east) used a gradualist method. This is what Imai called Kaizen. Imai believed the Western businesses used the great-leap-forward methodology. Imai referred to this as Innovation. The Eastern model of small, incremental change looks at the big picture. These changes may seem insignificant when they're implemented, but over time they can add up to significant improvements. In this model, the focus is on the long-term. Imai believed that the eastern model of improvement took small steps for long-term, continuous incremental gradual change. The east used everyone in the company and everyone collectively worked to maintain and improve. Imai saw this approach as having little investment but needed a lot of effort to maintain. He saw it as better for slow economical growth. The Western model of improvement prefers to see results fast. Consequently, large changes whose results can be seen quickly tend to be implemented. The upside of this method is positive gains are observed right away, which tends to please company leaders and can motivate employees. The downside is backsliding; organizations that always implement sudden, big changes often see those improvements fade over time.
Imai believed that the western model of improvement took big steps for short-term, intermittent abrupt change. The west used a select few people in the company and those individuals worked to scrap and rebuild. Imai saw this approach as having a large investment but small effort to maintain. He saw it as better for fast economical growth. Kaizen tends to fall into the Eastern model for improvement; smaller changes are made on a regular basis and over time they may provide a business with many benefits. People can perform tasks more easily, feel empowered that they can make changes themselves, and find real ways to help the business. One of the reasons small changes can be beneficial is they tend to be low cost and fairly easy to implement. If for some reason a change doesn't work out, not much harm has been done because few resources went into the change in the first place.
Kaizen benefits organizations for many reasons. Some of these benefits are:
- Smoother, more effective processes
- Cleaner, safer workspaces
- Higher quality products and/or services
- Lower costs
- Improved employee morale and engagement
- Better customer service
Respect for People
In kaizen, all workers must feel respected so that they are comfortable making suggestions for process improvements. This means management must believe workers are capable of making changes. People know their own jobs better than anyone else does, so they often have insights about possible improvements that people not doing the job on a daily basis won't have. It's important to note that when people are asked to look for possible improvements as part of kaizen, they shouldn't just be asked to look for cost savings. Some improvements may not result in direct cost savings, but they could make a process run smoother or make the work environment better for the people in it. People should look for improvements that will make their work function better, and in turn, these improvements may help the company and its customers. People should also be encouraged to test out ideas themselves and make changes as needed. Employees might choose to consult a co-worker or supervisor first, or if the idea is small enough, an employee might go ahead and implement the idea to see how it goes (depending on the policies of the workplace - some facilities prefer that employees always consult a supervisor before trying out an idea). In general, workplaces that use kaizen trust people to try things out and don't always rely on management to make every decision.
Role of Management
Management plays a critical role in kaizen's success and should:
- Looking for ways to improve their own work
- Help maintain and improve standards
- Provide goals or targets for improvement
- Support actions with evidence
Every workplace is unique and the strategies that help one facility improve may not work in another. Management's job is to support people while strategies are tested out and provide general guidance about where the organization is going. When standards change, management should make sure everyone is aware of the changes and verify that the changes are documented. Whenever management decides to implement a change, showing data to support it helps facilitate buy-in from others in the organization because people don't feel like management makes decisions on a whim. Employees can see that changes are made purposefully in order to further the goals of the organization.
Kaizen in Practice
Kaizen might be performed on a daily basis and goes beyond improving productivity. Employees are encouraged to use scientific methods to improve their own tasks to make things more efficient. Some businesses use daily Kaizen. Some business use Kaizen events. Other businesses use a combination of the two.
What is a Kaizen Event?
Kaizen events, sometimes referred to as "Rapid Improvement Events" or "Kaizen Blitzes," take place over a short period of time, usually a week or less. A Kaizen event is an action where the end result is to improve an existing process. A Kaizen event is a short-term effort to implement small, company wide improvements. An event should include training, analysis, design, and reconfiguring. It is not unusual for these events to last anywhere from a few days to a little over a week.
- Can be accomplished quickly, which can motivate employees and please management
- Shows employees how continuous improvement is practiced
- Increase interaction between departments
Carrying Out an Event
Kaizen events have specific goals that can be achieved in the short term. Good goals are realistic, measurable, important to the organization right now, and can involve many people during the event. For example, an event might aim to:
- Eliminate extra inventory from a certain production line
- Reduce the amount of defects by 25%
- Cut down on the time employees spend waiting for materials in an area by 50%
- Shorten lead time for a product by 10%
Note that these goals refer to specific locations and have clear targets. Goals may also involve solving a specific problem that an organization is facing. Once a goal is established, a team is convened to approach solving the problem or improving the process. This team often includes people from many departments who can provide unique perspectives.
Teams can have only a few people or as many as 10 people, depending on the situation. This team spends the allotted amount of time focusing on the situation at hand until the goal has been accomplished. Often, the PDCA cycle is used to test out possible solutions and improve upon current standards.When the team is tasked with solving a problem, they can sometimes use the "5 Whys," a technique for asking questions to get to the root cause of the problem.
Daily kaizen is something everyone can participate in as a part of daily work. When someone sees an abnormality, he or she can decide whether that abnormality is the result of standards not being followed or the result of an inadequate standard and think about ways for improving the current situation. These ideas can be simple and often they can be tested out pretty easily. Most ideas are low cost and low risk, so when an idea doesn't pan out, it's not the end of the world. People can follow these basic steps for carrying out daily kaizen:
- Come up with an improvement idea or identify a problem.
- Discuss the situation with co-workers or a supervisor.
- Try out the idea, possibly using the PDCA cycle or scientific method.
- Make notes about whether the idea was successful; if it was, take steps to make it the new standard for work.
- Share the success with the team, department, and organization.
Kaizen ideas can be about any part of work processes. They can involve machines, people, tools, cleanliness, organization, 5S practices, safety, the layout of the workspace, and more. Examples of simple ideas:
- Add floor markings to a warehouse aisle so boxes never encroach on the walkway. This simple visual cue can make the space easier to navigate.
- Relocate a tool so the person using it doesn't have to move as far to obtain it. This reduces excess motion.
- Label the locations of items on a workbench so it's easy to see where they should be stored when not in use.
- Add re-ordering information to bins on a supply shelf so materials can quickly be replenished. (This type of information is sometimes included on the cards used in kanban systems that may control production in Lean facilities.)
People should try to fix abnormalities first and then focus on improvement. (The SDCA cycle and then the PDCA cycle. )Everyone should be encouraged to come up with ideas, and businesses should be open to ideas, even if they may not seem like the best ideas. By participating in the continuous improvement process regularly, people will learn what kinds of ideas are most useful and best serve the goals of the organization. Over time, kaizen becomes a part of daily work, not something separate from it.
Continuous Improvement Tools
Some workplaces create a larger visual board where continuous improvement ideas are posted. Alternatively, this board can highlight successes, sort of like a kaizen "wall of fame." Seeing these successes can do several beneficial things. It can motivate employees to find new ways to improve, it can make employees whose ideas were successful feel appreciated, and it can help everyone in the organization track progress over time. This tool can serve as a record of continuous improvement.
A suggestion box is a traditional method for soliciting ideas from employees, and some workplaces that use kaizen employ suggestion boxes - either physical or electronic - for submitting ideas. These boxes can be useful, but it is important for a workplace to make sure someone is checking the box regularly and responding to ideas quickly. It's easy for suggestion boxes to get neglected, and when that happens employees may feel their ideas aren't taken seriously. All ideas should receive a response.
A quality circle is an activity that engages employees in improvement efforts regularly. Quality circles are small groups that have been used frequently in Japan. These groups often contain employees who perform similar functions in the company and they meet regularly to solve problems and discuss quality, cost, delivery, and other important topics. Implementing kaizen takes work. People need to be educated about kaizen and the role it will play in the workplace. Events may need to take place to demonstrate how improvement processes such as the SDCA and PDCA cycles work. Quality circles or other tools may be instated and time may be scheduled for daily kaizen. Management, supervisors, and employees all need to know their roles and feel that their ideas are respected.
At first, the improvements may seem small, but as time goes by, organizations using kaizen will likely see notable gains in the way processes work. Ultimately, this can lead to happier customers, which means a more successful business.