“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

– Benjamin Franklin


During the 1980s, facing stiff and unrelenting competition from Japanese manufacturers, American manufacturers tried to leverage lean methodologies and tools to transform their productivity and quality. Unfortunately, many of their efforts failed miserably. They would bring in consultants or tiger teams to lean out processes only to see people revert back to wasteful methods. They were missing the heart and engine of lean, which is kaizen.


What is Kaizen?

Kaizen is the philosophy that every person in an organization, from the CEO to the janitor, has a DUTY to improve what they do, eliminate waste on a daily basis, continually learn, reflect, change and experiment. And, the overall efficiency and effectiveness of an organization are predicated on the emergence and compounded impact of thousands of small improvements and changes driven by every individual in an organization. While western thinking typically seeks out big step-function innovations, eastern thinking focuses on the sum of the parts of many little improvements. It is hard for western management teams to comprehend the fact that over the past 50 years there have been over 1,000,000 systemic improvements to the Toyota production system.

In Japanese, kai means “change” and zen means “good”, which translated into English means “continuous improvement.” While Toyota pioneered many of the core lean improvement tools, they also perfected kaizen, which embodies the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of lean.


Kaizen methodology – PDCA

Kaizen expands beyond the idea of the individual pursuing continuous improvement; there is also the methodology of kaizen, which at its most basic level is applying the scientific method to processes. The prerequisite of kaizen is that you have standardized processes, with the thought being if a process is in flux and changing, then you can’t truly understand cause and effect in a controlled way. So, first, standardize your processes and get them up to level 4 in the process maturity levels.

Once you have standardized processes, then the first step in kaizen is to observe and identify waste. Once you identify waste, then the next step is a reflection to truly understand the waste and diagnose the root cause of it. The third step is the beginning of the Deming Cycle, which is a simple process improvement framework of Plan, Do, Check, and Act (PDCA). Plan involves designing an improvement to a process. Do is implementing the plan. Check involves measuring the impact of the plan on the efficiency and effectiveness of the process. And, Act, is deciding what permanent changes will be adopted and standardized in the process.

In Toyota’s thinking, there are two types of kaizen (improvement). The first is what we refer to as Kaizen with a capital K. This is the big win. In the west, this is what companies typically seek. In Toyota, people prefer kaizen with a small k, which are the small day-to-day efforts that improve a process. In the east, Plan, Do, Study, Act is a daily ritual.

Kaizen can happen informally as part of someone’s daily job or through a simple suggestion box. Or, kaizen can happen more formally through a planned and intense kaizen workshop, where a team comes together for a few days to problem-solve a process. A kaizen workshop involves understanding the needs of the customer, mapping out the current state of a process, identifying waste in the process and root causes of the waste, mapping out a future state of the process, and building an implementation plan to pilot changes, evaluate their impact, and ultimately make permanent changes to standardize within the process.


Why is kaizen important?

It is hard to believe the amount of waste in most processes until you go through a Kaizen exercise on a process and see the waste firsthand. Whether or not you adopt the formal methodologies of kaizen, the underpinning philosophy of kaizen can be useful. The philosophy of continuous improvement and that everyone should be proactive in identifying waste, creating solutions, implementing positive change, learning, and experimenting is essential to continuously improve organizational performance. The era of command and control management is extinct, and survival is predicated on nurturing and encouraging the empowerment and duty of every individual to drive positive continuous change.


How do you embrace kaizen?

There is no easy answer to how to embrace kaizen within an organization. It took Toyota many decades to perfect the kaizen cultural norms of continuous reflection, idea generation, controlled experimentation, standardization, and sharing. Kaizen is not about the tools but instead is about the deep seeded culture of an organization. Whereas Toyota team members look at waste and issues as an opportunity for the team and organization to improve, westerners often look at waste and issues as somebody’s problem, mistake, and a reason to potentially fire them. Western thinking is often about breakthrough innovation and step function improvements, while Toyota has implemented over 1 million small and large improvements to its production processes through Kaizen. Western thinking often obsesses on getting the results; while kaizen thinking is that the right process will produce the right results. There aren’t any quick tips or tricks to embracing kaizen since it is a long road that requires considerable commitment, dedication, resources, and thoughtfulness.




 Learn more about Joe Newsum, the author of all this free content and a McKinsey Alum. I provide a suite of coaching and training services to realize the potential in you, your team, and your business. Learn more about me and my coaching philosophy.
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