What Is Kaizen?

Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning "change for the better" or "continuous improvement." It is a Japanese business philosophy regarding the processes that continuously improve operations and involve all employees. Kaizen sees improvement in productivity as a gradual and methodical process.

The concept of kaizen encompasses a wide range of ideas. It involves making the work environment more efficient and effective by creating a team atmosphere, improving everyday procedures, ensuring employee engagement, and making a job more fulfilling, less tiring, and safer.

Key Takeaways

  • Kaizen is a Japanese business philosophy that focuses on gradually improving productivity by involving all employees and by making the work environment more efficient.
  • Kaizen translates to "change for the better" or "continuous improvement."
  • The small changes used in kaizen can involve quality control, just-in-time delivery, standardized work, the use of efficient equipment, and the elimination of waste.
  • Changes can come from any employee anytime and don’t have to happen slowly, although kaizen recognizes that small changes now can have big future impacts.

Understanding Kaizen

Some of the key objectives of the kaizen philosophy include quality control, just-in-time delivery, standardized work, the use of efficient equipment, and the elimination of waste. The overall goal of kaizen is to make small changes over a period of time to create improvements within a company. That doesn't mean alterations happen slowly; it simply recognizes that small changes now can have huge impacts in the future. Improvements can come from any employee at any time. The idea is that everyone has a stake in the company's success and everyone should strive, at all times, to help make the business model better.

Many companies have adopted the kaizen concept. Most notably, Toyota employs the kaizen philosophy within its organization and has esteemed it as one of its core values. Within its production system, Toyota encourages and empowers all employees to identify areas of potential improvement and create viable solutions.

Fast Fact

Toyota’s process of identifying solutions is called "kaizen blitz."

Requirements for Kaizen

Traditional Japanese ideas of kaizen follow five basic tenets: teamwork, personal discipline, improved morale, quality, and suggestions for improvement. These five tenets lead to three major outcomes: elimination of waste (also referred to as economic efficiency), good housekeeping, and standardization. Ideally, kaizen becomes so ingrained in a company's culture that it eventually becomes natural to employees.

The kaizen concept posits that there is no perfect end and that everything can be improved upon. People must strive to evolve and innovate constantly. The basic principle of kaizen is that people who perform certain tasks and activities are the most knowledgeable about that task/activity; including them to effect change is the best strategy for improvement.

Teamwork is core to kaizen, where regular team meetings are held involving discussions about improvements, changes, and projects.

Kaizen and the PDCA Cycle

Improvements generally follow the PDCA cycle format, which stands for "plan-do-check-act." The "plan" portion includes mapping out the changes so that everyone knows what to expect when teams try to solve a problem. The "do" means implementing the best solution to the problem. The "check" step involves evaluating the solution to the problem to see if it worked.

When a company performs the "act" stage, it determines whether or not the solution should become a company standard or if it needs further changes. If managers decide to implement more changes, kaizen goes back to the plan step and the process starts over.

Just-in-Time Inventory Strategy

One of the key goals of kaizen is to reduce waste and increase efficiency in the production cycle. A just-in-time (JIT) inventory strategy allows management to minimize excess inventory by matching the delivery of raw materials from suppliers with production schedules. Also known as the Toyota Production System (TPS), for the company that popularized the strategy, JIT helps companies cut costs because manufacturers do not have to pay inventory carrying costs. It also reduces waste because companies are not left with extra inventory should a customer cancel or postpone an order.

Kanban is an inventory control system used in conjunction with a JIT strategy. It provides employees with visual cues that tell them it is time to order parts and materials as they run out. The system relies on colored cards that track production and alert employees that it's time to replenish a needed part or material. It enables employees to quickly order the correct amount of parts from the supplier and have them delivered to where they are needed in the factory. The goal of kanban is to ensure the efficient running of the factory assembly line and to prevent bottlenecks from occurring.