What does Kaizen mean?

The literal definition of the Japanese word Kaizen is “change for the better,” however, over time the definition has transformed to “continuous improvement.” This interpretation has been taken to heart in multiple different business practices like healthcare, life coaching, banking, etc. The focus, however, has centered around the manufacturing world as well as business practices.

There are five basic principles to using Kaizen for improvement in the workplace. These include teamwork, personal discipline, improved morale, quality, and suggestions for improvement. These five principles are essential to a productive and efficient workplace because they strive towards three major goals; waste eliminations, good housekeeping, and standardization.

Kaizen refers to any sort of improvement, whether large or small, in the workplace that aims to eliminate wasted time, energy, and materials to make the process more streamlined. This includes changes made by employees, employers, and even their company’s CEO so they are all on the same level of clear, mutual understanding on how the business should work for maximum efficiency.

Kaizen is a foundational method of Lean manufacturing. Lean manufacturing aims to reduce eight forms of waste that employees and employers strive together to eliminate; they are as follows:

  • Defects - These problems waste time and resources including money. They most often lead to customer dissatisfaction.
    • Poor quality control and machine repair are the biggest culprit of defects. There can also be a lack of appropriate documentation and process standards that lead to inaccurate inventory levels. Lastly there may be a lack of understanding what the customer needs.
  • Excess Processing – This is often caused by management/administrative issues and an inefficient process that had been established.
    • This includes a lack of proper communication, an excess in human error, and a slow approval process. This matter is another problem from the company not understanding the customer’s needs.
  • Overproduction – There are too many WIP (Work in Progress) components that have cluttered the staging area. This causes defects to be missed as well, in some cases.
    • This is linked to the excess processing idea mentioned above because there is an unreliable process and production schedule somewhere that is causing an imbalance of complete products vs pieces of products. Also, the customer needs are not clear which causes inaccurate demand needs. There may be an underlying automation problem that may cause delayed set-up times.
  • Waiting – Idle equipment should be addressed, as idleness is a waste of time and energy. This is the opposite of overproduction.
    • Waiting is often caused by delayed set up times, lack of communication and process control, or lack of producing to demand.
  • Inventory – Inventory is wasteful because it is considered to be holding costs. Over-purchasing raw materials and not having them made into product to be sold almost immediately delays the rate of payment vs money spent.
    • This is caused by overproduction, idleness of machines and process, defects, and excessive transport.
  • Transportation – This is the unnecessary movement of raw materials, WIP, or finished products. They can be solved with applying a value stream mapping strategy to only move materials when necessary.
    • This problem is mostly caused by poor layouts of the facility or multiple facilities, large batch sizes, and poorly designed production systems.
  • Motion – This includes people and equipment as well as excess physical stress like lifting and bending.
    • This issue is caused by workspaces that are not designed well, unorganized, or not properly stocked with the right materials. 5S was invented to remedy this issue with its five phases (sort, set, shine, standardize, sustain) therefore improving the Kaizen ideals.
  • Non-Utilized Talent - This is the only Kaizen ideal that is not related to manufacturing waste. It is rather to address the potential problem of lack in training or not engaging employees in improvement, learning opportunities, and aid concerning their career path.
    • This is due to poor communication, inappropriate policies, and lack of team training (poor management). It is also good to note that this may be caused by lack in inclusiveness regarding innovations and ideas.

If all of these principles are applied and the eight elements of waste avoided, in even small increments, the definition of Kaizen—continuous improvement—will suddenly make itself apparent in the workplace. This leads to happy employees and content customers.


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