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Kaizen

Gaining the Benefits of Continuous Improvement

Kaizen - Gaining the Benefits of Continuous Improvement

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Fine tuning isn't a box you can tick – it's an ongoing process.

How does change happen in your organization? Is it through major initiatives, or is it part of the ongoing way you work?

Some types of change inevitably need a major project, meaning months of hard work, big budgets, and upheaval.

But an alternative or complementary approach to improving systems and processes involves more subtle, ongoing changes. This approach is often undervalued.

One way to do this kind of continuous, incremental improvement is kaizen. It originated in Japan, and the word translates as "change (kai) for the good (zen)."

Kaizen is based on the philosophical belief that everything can be improved. With this approach, incremental changes add up to substantial changes over the longer term, without the need for radical innovation. It can be a much gentler and more employee-friendly way to institute the changes that must occur as a business grows and adapts to its changing environment.

Understanding the Approach

Because kaizen is more a philosophy than a specific tool, its approach is found in many different process-improvement methods, ranging from Total Quality Management (TQM) to the use of employee suggestion boxes. With kaizen, all employees are responsible for identifying gaps and inefficiencies. And everyone, at every level in the organization, suggests where improvements can take place.

Kaizen aims for improvements in productivity, effectiveness and safety. But people who follow this approach often unlock a number of other benefits, too, including:

  • Less waste – inventory is used more efficiently, as are employee skills.
  • People are more satisfied – they have a direct impact on the way that things are done.
  • Improved commitment – team members have more of a stake in their job, and are more inclined to contribute fully in their role.
  • Improved retention – satisfied and engaged people are more likely to stay.
  • Improved competitiveness – increases in efficiency tend to contribute to lower costs and higher-quality products.
  • Improved consumer satisfaction – a result of creating higher-quality products with fewer faults.
  • Improved problem solving – looking at processes from a solutions perspective allows employees to solve problems continuously.
  • Improved teams – working together to solve problems helps to build and strengthen teams.

Note:

Another Japanese term associated with kaizen is muda, which means waste. Kaizen is about decreasing waste by eliminating overproduction, improving quality, being more efficient, having less idle time, and reducing unnecessary activities. All these translate to cost savings, and can turn potential losses into profits.

The kaizen philosophy was developed to improve manufacturing processes, and it's one of the elements that led to the success of Japanese manufacturing through high quality and low costs. However, you can gain the benefits of the kaizen approach in many other working environments, both on a personal level and for your whole team or organization.

Much of the focus in kaizen is on reducing "waste," and this waste takes several forms:

  • Movement – moving materials around before further value can be added to them.
  • Time – spent waiting (no value is being added during this time).
  • Defects – which require extra work to rectify, or mean that products have to be thrown away.
  • Overprocessing – doing more to the product than is necessary to give the customer maximum value for money.
  • Variations – producing bespoke solutions when a standard one will work just as well.

The table below shows some examples of these forms of waste in an office environment.

Form of Waste Examples
Movement
  • People moving between buildings for in-person meetings, when virtual meetings could add the same value.
  • "Mental" movement can be a type of waste too, where people are distracted into switching from one job to another, before the first job is complete. Try to concentrate on one task for long enough to finish it. And use an Activity Log or an Interrupters Log to identify how often you're currently switching between tasks.
  • Having to open a file or database to look for key phone numbers you use regularly, when it might be quicker to print these out and pin them on the wall.
Time
  • Waiting for latecomers in meetings. Always start meetings on time, as a courtesy to those who are prompt, and to encourage good timekeeping.
  • Searching unnecessarily for documents because you haven't set up an efficient filing system.
Defects
  • A manager rewriting a report because they didn't fully brief or train a junior member of staff to do it.
  • Redoing or discarding work because of inadequate research, or because it was done before key decisions had been made.
Overprocessing
  • Spending time adding color to a document or report that's going to be printed in black and white for distribution at a meeting.
  • Reading material in more detail than is necessary. See our article on Reading Strategies for more on this.
  • Inviting more people to meetings than is necessary. Limit meetings to those who should be involved in making decisions. Others can be informed about what was decided by sending them the notes afterward.
Variations
  • Producing a new report especially for one group when an existing report could easily be tailored to suit their needs.
  • Creating new documents when you could set up and use a standard template.

Using Kaizen

Here's our suggested approach for using "kaizen thinking," either on your own or with your team:

  1. Keep an "ideas log" of things that seem inefficient or that you'd like to improve. It's often easier to spot these in the heat of the moment than in cold reflection.
  2. Once a month, spend some time identifying areas where there's "waste" in the way that you or your team members operate. Use your ideas log as input, but also think about the wider picture and your overall ways of working. Go through each of the types of waste listed above as a checklist. How could each form of waste be eliminated?
  3. Plan out when you're going to make these changes. You need to strike a balance between getting on with making the improvements immediately (so that the area of waste doesn't become a bigger problem), and avoiding "change overload."
  4. It's important to take into account any difficulties or confusion that your change could cause for others – which could, in turn, make them resistant to that change. A great way to assess the impact of any potential changes is to use the Impact Analysis Tool .
  5. Whenever upcoming changes affect others, be sure to consult them about the new arrangements, and listen to their comments and concerns.

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Kaizen is something that you can benefit from quickly as an individual. But embracing the approach with your team will take a concerted effort.

Here are some suggestions to help make kaizen work with your team:

  • Learn – with your team – about the philosophy of kaizen.
  • Allow everyone to submit their suggestions for improvements.
  • Establish your overall kaizen approach and controls, creating a system to follow that everyone understands.
  • Reward ideas, as the more ideas you generate, the more kaizen is at work in the day-to-day life of your team.

Tip:

Mind Tools has resources about a range of other continuous-improvement tools, including Lean Manufacturing, The 5S System, and Value Stream Mapping.

Key Points

Kaizen is a philosophy that supports continuous, incremental process changes that sustain a high level of efficiency.

It can help you to improve the way you work personally, by eliminating various types of "waste."

Kaizen can also be an organization-wide approach that harnesses suggestions and support from people at every level.

Wide participation can improve morale and satisfaction, as well as production, costs, and other hard measures.

Used well, a kaizen approach reveals what a big impact small changes can make!

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (29)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi juhber23, and Welcome to the Club!

    We're glad that you enjoyed the Kaizen material.

    This management principle has been around for 70 years and has improved productivity processes for many businesses.

    Thank you for you feedback.

    BillT
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago juhber23 wrote
    Thank you very much. Good way to increase productiveness.
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Hi Calvin L,

    You're welcome, and we're glad you liked it.

    Yolande,
    Mind Tools Team
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