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Process of Continuous Improvement


Kaizen is the Lean philosophy of constant, continuous improvement, working to ensure maximum quality, efficiency improvements, and an elimination of waste. It’s the belief that small process improvements over time, in all departments within an organization, will benefit the company as a whole.

What is the Kaizen Process?

Kaizen Japanese Translation

Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning “change for the better.” Kaizen is not a one-time event, but rather a foundational philosophy everyone in the company practices – from the CEO to assembly line workers. Companies with a culture of continuous improvement reap many benefits, including:

  • Smoother and more efficient processes
  • More accurate KPIs
  • Improved employee morale and engagement
  • Lower operating costs
  • Cleaner, safer workspaces
  • Higher quality products or services
  • Improved communication between teams and departments
  • Standard work documentation

Kaizen believes frontline employees have the most effective process improvement suggestions since they have firsthand experience with how the process operates, its issues, and might have even observed previous changes that failed. Every employee should feel empowered to take control of their work processes and improve them.

Toyota Production System

Before it was seen as a Lean philosophy, American business and manufacturing experts were introducing continual improvement practices, like Training Within Industry, to Japanese companies. Toyota quickly adopted these practices and modified them to work in their workplace and culture.

continuous improvement teamKaizen was developed as a core element to the revolutionary Toyota Production System alongside Jidoka and just-in-time. The automobile manufacturer believed developing quality systems and continuously improving those systems would in turn improve the quality of their products. Just like TPS is ineffective without Kaizen and Jidoka, Lean manufacturing will not be successful without a culture of continuous improvement and respect for people. Today, Japan credits Kaizen as one of the main factors to becoming one of the strongest industrialized countries in the world.

What are the 5 elements of Kaizen?

Successfully practicing Kaizen comes down to cultivating a strong, supportive culture with the following five core elements:

  • Teamwork: Employees work together to achieve the common goal of improved performances and processes. Teamwork is developed within departments, through quality circles, and between levels.
  • Personal Discipline: Self-discipline when it comes to quality and time-management is key to the success of Kaizen.
  • Improved Morale: When people are empowered to improve their tasks or job, people are more satisfied with their job and the whole manufacturing process benefits.
  • Quality Circles: Made up of approximately five to seven employees, quality circles allow teams to meet regularly to discuss issues arising in their work processes.
  • Suggestions for Improvement: From human resources and accounting to manufacturing operations and the shipping department, every employee should be trained to identify wastes or improvements and feel comfortable either sharing them or implementing themselves. All suggestions should be considered.

Outside of these five foundational elements, there are three key factors in Kaizen:

  • The elimination of waste and inefficiency.
  • The 5S framework for organization.
  • Standardization.


When practicing Kaizen, it’s beneficial to do so under a continuous improvement framework, like the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle. The PDCA Cycle is a four-step scientific approach to problem solving and continuous improvements, evolving from the Shewhart cycle and the Deming Circle. The four phases of PDCA are:

Plan do check act cycle
  • Plan: An improvement opportunity is chosen, or an issue is identified. Goals are established to clarify the purpose of the project, stakeholders are considered, and an action plan is prepared.
  • Do: The process is mapped out, data is collected, and the facts are analyzed to develop the best solutions. These changes are implemented on a small-scale capacity.
  • Check: Solutions are tested and measured to check whether or not the improvements met the goals set in the planning phase.
  • Act: If the changes didn’t pan out, the cycle is started over and a new solution is tested. If improvements were successful, the cycle restarts and the team begin planning wide-scale implementation.

PDCA is cyclical tool and should be repeated again and again as solutions are retested and refined to support continuous improvement.

The Continuous Improvement Philosophy

At the heart of Kaizen is the philosophy of continuous improvement – focusing on incremental improvements to achieve larger process improvements. Many Lean professionals argue in order to successfully implement and sustain Lean, organizations will need to adopt the continuous improvement culture. The company needs to move away from implementing one-off change initiatives to thinking how processes can be perfected with small changes.

The philosophy of continuous improvement believes everything (employees, processes, products, etc.) can be improved, and there is always room for improvement. When goals are met, the process isn’t over! Instead, new goals are set, and workers are constantly challenged. Continuous improvement should be seen as the responsibility of everyone in the organization and everyone should be looking for ways to improve their work processes.

Muda: The 8 Wastes of Lean

The starting point of an effective continual improvement program is identifying waste. Kaizen aims to eliminate all waste, specifically addressing muda. Muda is a Japanese term referring to manufacturing activities that do not add any value but take time and money away from the company. The eight most common wastes in manufacturing are: defects, overproduction, waiting, unused talent, transportation, inventory, motion, and extra-processing. Eliminating wastes keeps production running smoothly and as each waste is reduced, quality is increased.

Standardized Work

Taiichi Ohno, considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System and Lean manufacturing, has said “When there is no standard, there can be no Kaizen.”

Standardized work, the set of rules and procedures dictating how a task should be performed, provides a baseline for improvement projects. The three components of standard work are:

  • Takt Time: The time it takes to manufacture a finished product in order to meet demand.
  • Work Sequence: Step-by-step, the order of operations within a production process.
  • Standard Inventory: The total number of materials, machines, and units needed to keep up with manufacturing.

Managers use this information to determine the most efficient sequences for production, standardizing it across the board. Workers are encouraged to follow process steps as closely as possible – any variations can result in quality issues or an increased cycle time. The foundation set by standard work allows improvements to be measured for effectiveness against it. Each time the standard improves, the new standard for work is set as the baseline and the improvement cycle starts all over again. Standardized work is a never-ending process that managers must continuously reinforce.

What is 5S?

5S is more than just the housekeeping strategy it’s often thought to be – it’s a strategy that when used correctly, promotes self-discipline and increases engagement. As part of Lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System, the 5S framework for organization lays the groundwork for successful Kaizen implementation. Just like how standardized work establishes a baseline for continuous improvement, 5S creates an environment where continual improvement can thrive.

The 5S’s stand for:

  • Sort out the clutter, keeping only what is necessary for the process.
  • Set in Order the items remaining, placing tools in a logical manner and making everything easy to access.
  • Shine the space, perform maintenance, and clean equipment.
  • Standardize the efforts from the first three steps, making sorting, setting, and shining a part of routine.
  • Sustain new practices, maintaining discipline through audits and continuing to improve 5S over time

5S drives continuous improvement by standardizing cleaning and maintenance procedures while instituting visual management. Through 5S, employees develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for their space, and a sense of trust and respect is established for an environment where workers feel comfortable suggesting improvement ideas.

Kaizen Examples in Practice

Although Kaizen involves employees from all levels, creating a culture to sustain improvements will need to begin at the top and usually involves training:

  • CEO and Executives: Executives need to understand how their role fits into developing a Kaizen culture.
  • Managers and Supervisors: It’s key to provide managers and coaches with the context of Kaizen within in their teams – what to look for, keeping momentum up, etc.
  • Frontline workers: Employees should know why Kaizen is being implemented, but training will largely be focused on encouraging and empowering workers to perfect processes on their own.
CEO, employees meeting for event

As a former Toyota executive describes, Lean and continuous improvement can be tough for executives to adopt. He found instead of implementing his ideas and waiting for improvements, it was far more successful to gather a team of employees involved in the process (the experts of the process) to develop a system. The former executive realized his workers had ideas he had never even thought of, and this practice encouraged collaboration and problem-solving.

Following initial implementation, managers and supervisors should be looking for ways to improve their own work, help maintain and improve standards, and support actions with evidence. The Kaizen toolbox is filled with activities, frameworks, and strategies, but it is important to remember these tools are futile without a strong cultural shift.

Kaizen Event

So far, we’ve only discussed implementing the tenets of Kaizen as a daily practice. However, Kaizen can still be applied to larger projects with a Kaizen event (also called a continual improvement blitz). They are almost always a part of a larger continuous improvement program and may not be as effective if the culture does not support Kaizen. A Kaizen event is a scheduled short-term event where employees come together to focus on a particular issue or process. Organizations can also hold an event to improve or implement certain Lean tools like 5S, total productive maintenance, SMED, etc.

A typical Kaizen event will last anywhere from a few hours to a full week following this process:

  • Prep: Define the scope of the event, choosing the target process. Select an event team, establish goals, and schedule a start/end date for the event. It’s also important to establish goals.
  • Training: Ensure that everyone on the event team is given appropriate process-improvement training.
  • During the Event: Document the current state of the process by going to the Gemba and creating a value stream map. Conduct bottleneck analyses, root cause analyses, future value stream mapping, and implement a test solution.
  • After: Follow up at a later date to measure results for effectiveness. Following the PDCA cycle, decide what the next steps are.

Process Mapping

No matter where your organization is in the process of implementing Kaizen, a process map should be drawn up to get an accurate state of current processes. Some companies choose to hold a process mapping event, setting aside a few days for leaders to observe all processes within the organization, giving them the opportunity to map a complete, top-down diagram of their organization.

going to the gemba

Before any changes are made or improvements implemented, a process map should be drafted to give everyone a detailed look at the current state of the process. This will help to quickly identify opportunities for improvement while establishing a baseline to measure any future changes against. To kick off a process mapping event, you’ll want to start by going to the Gemba.

Going to the Gemba

Gemba is a Japanese term referring to the actual place where the value is created or where work is performed. In a Lean manufacturing facility, Gemba could be the shipping department, the production line, the sales office, or even the conference room. Gemba walks are a powerful tool to help managers meet the Kaizen objective of humanizing the workplace and respecting the people. It works to break down barriers while encouraging workers to feel comfortable sharing improvement suggestions.

Gemba walks typically have a theme and will usually focus on a specific process or waste. Management can support Kaizen in their organization by performing a Gemba walk to identify areas of improvement, evaluate standardization, and talk with employees. Managers should be asking employees questions, learning more about the processes they perform, and listening to the individuals carrying out value-added activity.

Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho’s words, “Go see, ask why, show respect” encapsulates the basic principles of Lean and Gemba. Managers must:

  • Go to the Gemba to see not only how processes operate, but how they fit in with the broader purpose of the organization.
  • Ask why things are being done – what is the root cause of the waste/issue?
  • Show respect to workers creating value for the organization, they’re the experts in the process.

In the beginning of your continuous improvement journey, your achievements may seem small. But as time passes and employees become more engaged, organizations that adopted the Kaizen philosophy will likely see noticeable gains in the way processes operate. When processes work better, customers are happier, and your business is more successful.

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