Last Updated on 16 September 2023
Kaizen literally means ‘change’ (kai) for ‘good’ (zen) from Japanese, but is more commonly referred to as ‘continuous improvement’. It is about gradually improving your processes so that we are always looking for how to make them better. The focus is on a gradual evolutionary improvement in the process rather than any revolutionary change. It is part of the Toyota Production System for removing waste and is a core part of Lean.
It is a culture of improvement that goes throughout the entire company, and requires the buy in from process operators to the CEO.
It’s fantastic to find something that will improve your output by 100%, but this is very rare to find. Instead, finding 20 improvements that each improve your output by 5% each is a lot easier to find. By this method, you can by gradual improvement gain huge gains for your organization. You can also use it to gradually achieve the target of 3.4 defects per million that is the target for Six Sigma.
What is Kaizen?
Kaizen is a continuous improvement philosophy involving the entire organization. It involves the concept that everything can be improved and all problems are an opportunity for improvement.
Kaizen is small incremental changes that add up to a long term large improvement.
It mostly focuses on removing the 7 wastes of lean from your system.
When do you use it?
Kaizen is useful when there are a lot of simple projects that you can do, that are simple and don’t take much research. These are the ‘low hanging fruit’ quick fixes that can be seen as ‘obvious’ improvements.
It is not useful in more complex projects that need cross-functional involvement or large amounts of research. For these projects you are better off doing a more structured approach such as DMAIC.
Benefits of Kaizen
- The most obvious is that small gains can easily add up to huge improvements that you would struggle to achieve with one big change
- The improvements generally don’t use much resources (time and money) to achieve
- Inclusion of the whole organization makes employees feel valued
- Ideas come from everyone, greatly increasing the number of improvement ideas compared to it being limited to a small team
Improvements can come very quickly after a few days, rather than after a few months with DMAIC
- Remove the 7 wastes of lean from your workplace, which can e.g.:
- increase output
- reduce costs
- reduce inventory levels
- reduce downtime
- use less space
- meet customer deadlines easier
How do you perform Kaizen?
The process of Kaizen comes from the whole organization, but must be led capably from the top as well.
The method of implementation is simple:
- Find an issue that is occurring in your organization
- Find solutions through e.g. brainstorming or a improvements suggestion box
- Test the solution
- Implement your chosen solution
- Monitor to check that the results are as expected
This doesn’t take much resources to implement, so can be repeated again and again to lead to huge improvements.
Kaizen Blitz / Kaizen event
There are times when a quick improvement is needed, much faster than in traditional Kaizen. This is called a Kaizen blitz, or Kaizen event. They can be from a few hours to a few days (5 days is a common duration), but the idea is that a large amount of resources are put on the problem in order to greatly speed up the usually slower improvement process.