What is Kaizen?
The term kaizen is ubiquitous, but what does kaizen actually mean? And how is it used? Kaizen is a Japanese term that literally
means "good change" or "Change for the
Better." When we improve a process, a
product, or a service in an incremental way
over time, this is continuous improvement.
And continuous improvement is kaizen.
The way kaizen happens is with
full involvement from the people who actually
do the work. This works through a
concept of Lean or the Toyota Production
System that many people call "Respect for
People" but might better be understood as
"Respect for Humanity." This is the idea
that people intrinsically have creativity and
thinking skills that are largely untapped.
Instead of asking employees to simply do their
jobs, we must involve them in the process of
improvement. They will be able to help
identify obstacles that get in the way of
their work and ultimately kaizen can
But, I believe kaizen needs a
framework in which to work properly.
If we just have a suggestion system, we
might develop and implement some ideas for
improvement, but this will not make the kind
of impact to an organization that we might
be expecting. In order to achieve a
significant impact, we need to have
direction for our kaizen.
There are two keys to this direction.
The first involves setting goals and
objectives and cascading these goals and
objectives to every part of an organization.
If people within a department understand
what they need to achieve, they can then
begin to identify obstacles and
countermeasures to achieve their goals.
This is called
deployment or hoshin kanri
The second key is to follow an improvement
or problem solving process that follows the
PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) or PDSA (Plan Do
Study Adjust) cycle. In Lean thinking,
the process is typically called A3 Problem
Solving or Toyota Business Practices.
To achieve a culture of daily kaizen, the most
effective methodology I've found to date
that works within the A3 Problem Solving
process is known as Toyota Kata or the
Kata. Each day, we are
experimenting in an effort to move from our
current condition to a target condition.
This is true kaizen.
What about kaizen events? A kaizen event or rapid improvement event
is a team based event in which individuals, including those who do the work to
be improved plus others, work together to improve processes. The original
idea behind this was developed by Shingijutsu Consulting, when they came to the
U.S. to implement the Toyota Production System. The week-long event was
utilized to implement new model lines (assembly lines). By the end of the
week, the new layout and standard work was in place, or at least being tested.
Within the lean community, there is much debate about what such events should be
called. There is a Japanese word kaikaku which refers to
breakthrough improvement, and many people within the lean community think we
should use this word instead of kaizen since rapid or breakthrough
improvement is not the same as continuous improvement. I believe the
has sailed; while I agree that kaizen really does mean continuous
improvement, kaizen event is a term that has been in place for 25 years or more,
and we should continue to use it in this way.
The final question is: should companies be
doing daily kaizen or kaizen events? I
believe that daily kaizen is essential in
order to create a company of problem solvers
- people who begin to think in a certain
pattern. However, I also believe there is
merit to holding improvement events for
rapid improvement. These can serve as
hands-on learning experiences, and they can
enable organizations to attain
improvement fairly rapidly. Early in
the lean transformation process, I believe
kaizen events should be used very often.
However, as a company matures in its lean
journey, daily kaizen should be the
primary means to improvement.