What is Kaizen? Process, Examples, Principles

Updated Dec 2, 2022.
What is Kaizen

Most businesses experience failure at different levels and for different reasons. With the Kaizen program and methods, an organization can rise above these failures and become more productive in its activities. 

Kaizen involves process changes that can be gradual but will eventually cause big organizational changes. The principles of Kaizen, if implemented properly, will inevitably result in notable improvement within the organization. 

This article will expose you to what Kaizen means, Kaizen examples, Kaizen events, and principles you can implement to cause the required changes and potential improvements in your organization. 

What is Kaizen?

Kaizen comes from the Japanese words for good and change, change for the better, or improvement. From the philosophical perspective, Kaizen promotes a mindset where small incremental changes ultimately create a notable impact over time.

As a methodology, Kaizen improves certain areas in an organization by engaging top management and front-line employees to make notable daily changes, conscious that small incremental improvements can yield big results.

Kaizen vs. traditional process improvement
Source: BDC

Japanese manufacturers first endorsed Kaizen as a vital and foundational business philosophy after World War II.

In the business world, Kaizen refers to a mindset where continuous improvement is experienced in the organization through notable gradual improvements.

The Kaizen theory has been proven relevant across various fields and can apply to real-life situations. This theory is considered the major building block of lean manufacturing and lean production in the manufacturing process.

Positive elements such as teamwork, personal discipline, improved morale, quality circles, and suggestions for improvement are necessary for successful Kaizen implementation. They make up the Kaizen framework. 

Companies use Kaizen blitz or events as a short-term approach to reducing waste and production costs. 

Compared to other Kaizen activities, which focus on fundamental changes over a long period, a Kaizen event is a starting point for continuous improvement designed to deliver the desired results in a particular focus area through many small changes. 

What are the Main Principles and Elements of Kaizen? 

Since management usually expects immediate results from work done or regarding the execution of projects, implementing the Kaizen theory is almost impossible.

If you want to maximize the advantages of Kaizen, you must understand the principles and elements surrounding it and how to apply them. 

1. Management Commitment

A major reason Kaizen's implementation fails is primarily the lack of support and other notable actions from leaders in the organization. 

The top management of an organization is vested with the most important responsibility of ensuring that the Kaizen approach is implemented, followed by every manager and then the rank-and-file employees.

When the top management in an organization displays a long-term commitment to continuous improvement, the managers will inevitably follow through on the Kaizen initiative, and the employees will personally cultivate a Kaizen mindset.

Kaizen Mindset
Source: 1000Ventures

2. Employee Empowerment 

Employees naturally get acquainted with the best possible ways to improve how the job is done. Organizational leaders should create a work-friendly environment where employees can feel empowered to contribute and bring up suggestions concerning the work.

Creating a work-friendly environment ensures that various suggestions for improvements can come from the different levels and ranks within the organization.

Leaders will boost their morale and confidence by encouraging workers to add value to the organization through their suggestions and contribution. 

This strategy gives every individual in the organization a sense of responsibility and ownership of continuous improvement efforts, which will inevitably result in successfully implementing the Kaizen philosophy. 

3. Gemba Walk

The achievement of operational efficiency started when the actual task was stated to be executed and not from the discussion in a conference room.

Key elements of a gemba walk
Source: Tulip

A Gemba Walk is derived from the term Gembutsu or Gemba, which means “the real place” normally performed by a manager to review or learn how a particular process works or functions and acquire in-depth information about workers and the work's continuous improvement.

Gemba Walk checklists serve as a useful guide for observing the relevant questions to be asked to determine the source of the problem and the next steps to take regarding finding solutions to these problems. 

Gemba Walk Checklist
Source: Kanbanize

4. 5S Principles

One of the biggest challenges that have affected continuous improvement is assuming new ideas or ways of doing things will fail and holding on to old practices and methods of carrying out work.

The 5S Principles aim to improve workplace efficiency and effectiveness by successfully developing new ideas and methods to eliminate waste in the organization’s activities. 

Organizations should not hold on to the mindset that a principle, method, or idea that worked previously means it will continue its work because that is not always the case. 

Here are the 5S principles:

  • Safety & Security
  • Waste elimination
  • Increased efficiency
  • Low implementation cost for high-impact performance
  • Development of a collaborative mindset among co-workers

Why Do Manufacturing Businesses Use Kaizen?

1. Eliminates Waste

The Kaizen approach is very popular in the world of manufacturing businesses because of its notable principle of waste elimination and incremental improvements. These principles are useful to factory floors for a range of products. 

Kaizen helps manufacturing businesses cut their production costs and increase their operating income.

2. Increase Competitive Advantage

Manufacturing businesses use Kaizen to boost their competitive advantage. The purpose of all Kaizen continuous improvement and changes is to produce high-quality products faster to gain a competitive advantage over their competitors.

What is the Kaizen Process?

The Kaizen method is a step-by-step process; the journey of Kaizen’s implementation can only move forward when the right questions are being asked.

The accurate knowledge and clear understanding of the main elements and core principles set the organization for success.

The six step Cycle of Kaizen
Source: Get Breakout

Here are key guide questions you can begin with that show clearly how the Kaizen activities are performed and the process works.

To implement Kaizen, you will have to follow this process. 

1. Identify the Problem’s Root Cause

In a situation where an ongoing change-resistant procedure is inadequate or bad, it will be wrong to keep investing resources to solve the wrong problem. 

The wise approach is for the leader to drop their assumptions and preconceived notion about who or what they think is wrong. They should ensure proper findings into the issue by implementing Gemba Walk and root cause analysis. 

Avoid assuming that new methods will work. You can discover the solution by finding out the root cause of the problem. 

As a leader, it is wise to place yourself in a position where you can easily identify quality gaps by communicating personally with workers and observing their work first-hand.

While observing your employee's work, avoid criticizing, finding faults, and apportioning blame on workers. Instead, carefully take note of everything happening without much interference. 

You can not get this real-life example of a typical day in operation and the experiences and knowledge acquired through observation from reports.

2. Address the Problem’s Root Cause

With the five why analysis, problem-solving comes easily if these principles are followed accurately. 

This analysis helps to determine the root cause of a problem. It can serve as an effective technique in formulating solutions that prevent the recurrence of the identified problem.

This technique is equipped with creative suggestions for workers and supported by relevant information from where work happens. Managers can use it to implement low-cost but high-value improvements that sync with the quality objective of the organization. 

3. Ensure Consistent Implementation of Changes

An organization's senior management consultant shows commitment to continuous improvement when it immediately takes action on the small incremental changes and follows through with significant long-term initiatives.

The notable changes should begin with you by personally making adjustments to how you work and carefully taking note of its significant effect on the quality of your output. 

Kaizen is relevant to every organization member and not just exclusive to a particular set of people, such as team members alone. It should occur everywhere within the organization, not just on the shop floor.

You can save quality time and money from manual monitoring across various sites and levels of the organization by centralizing Kaizen management.

4. Impact of Continuous Improvement Efforts

While implementing Kaizen principles, most people are impatient. They may give up because they do not instantly see or feel notable differences their seemingly small actions make in the company.

The A3 Report
Source: SafetyCulture

The A3 or 8D reports are ideal documents that managers or leaders in an organization can share with employees because they measure the effectiveness, monitor the performance of implemented changes, and communicate the impact of Kaizen’s principles.

You should note the most impactful solution to know the specific actions the company needs to start, continue or stop taking. 

8D Report Eight Disciplines
Source: Toolshero

5. How Else Can We Keep Improving?

The journey of continuous improvement is not marked by perfection but by a strong desire for personal and organizational growth. 

If you can achieve 50% of your improvement goals, you are doing great; you need to celebrate your wins but never stop there; you must keep improving. 

Do not leave issues that arise in the workplace to linger for a long time before you take significant action. 

You should be proactive about solving problems in the workplace because Kaizen is an unending process. With these actions, you guarantee continuous improvement in the workplace. 

How is 5S Used in the Kaizen System?  

The 5S in the Kaizen system shows the concept of continuous improvements and notable actions taken to reduce waste. 

1. Sort or Seiri

The first S, which stands for Sort, or Seiri, emphasizes the strong desire to eliminate any unnecessary object or entity clustering the work environment. It serves as a distraction or hindrance to workplace activities and constant improvement.

2. Set in Order or Seition

The second S is focused on effectively organizing useful objects in their rightful place. This action helps increase efficiency, improve productivity and minimize wastage of space and time.

Everything needed to accomplish given workplace tasks is properly arranged in the right place, at the right time, and in the right order.

3. Shine or Seiso

The third S emphasizes the cleanliness of the shop floor and how important it is to keep work items in their rightful place to ensure efficiency and organization.

4. Standardize or Seiketsu

The fourth S emphasizes the importance of recognizing and maintaining the processes that have been developed and proven effective. 

Following this principle implies that every team member must respect and comply with the laid-down systems and processes in the workspace.

5. Sustain or Shitsuke

The final S focuses on ensuring that the organization experiences continuous improvement. Sustain, or Shitsuke, ensures that personal discipline is maintained around existing processes and vital knowledge is protected.

Examples of How Manufacturers Use the Kaizen Method 

Different industries implement the Kaizen method to boost productivity and help the company do better. 

Some examples of how certain manufacturing companies apply Kaizen in their activities include:

1. Toyota   

Toyota can be considered one of the most popular manufacturing companies that use the Kaizen method, which is part of the Toyota way and supports all the processes and systems. 

This car manufacturing company has been implementing Kaizen for many decades. The Kaizen concept is firmly integrated into ‘The Toyota Way,’ the organization’s doctrine that supports all its systems and various processes. 

Toyota Production System
Source: 5S Today

One notable way Toyota implements Kaizen is its use of Nemawashi, which is regarded as the beginning of the decision-making process.

The Japanese term Nemawashi translates to ‘laying the groundwork.’ Vital information is passed to every team member before making formal decisions. This process is designed to empower people and engage team members in the work process. 

According to the information on Toyal’s website, the company uses the Kaizen principle to underpin the aim of forever thinking about the next, learning from the past, and improving the Toyota production system. 

2. Nestle

Nestle, a Swiss food and beverage company, is another notable organization for implementing Kaizen.

This manufacturing company uses techniques such as value stream mapping that display how the movement of materials and information should run to create the most efficient production line.

3. Lockheed Martin

Another notable manufacturer that takes advantage of the benefits of the Kaizen method is Lockheed Martin. 

Lockheed Martin is a worldwide manufacturer of defense systems and military aircraft. With the Kaizen principle, Lockheed Martin has successfully cut its manufacturing cost by more than a third over just five years and cut its delivery time for products almost in half.

Benefits of Kaizen 

1. Increased Customer Satisfaction

Waste reduction and increased productivity will naturally minimize any lags in customers’ deliveries or responses to their concerns. 

2. Happier, More Engaged, and More Productive Workforce

Connecting all teams within the work environment in a joint effort to create continuous improvement means the employees are happier, more engaged, and more productive. 

The emphasis on respecting every team member’s viewpoints and having a clear understanding of all elements of the factory floor generates goodwill.

3. The Razor-Sharp Focus on Cutting Waste

When you implement the Kaizen method, the natural result is a reduction in waste of all forms. Waste reduction can be in the form of the better use of leftover materials or improved use of labor systems and workflow. 

Continuous Improvement in Your Workplace and Production Process

The Kaizen method is a great fit for big mass-production manufacturing businesses. SMEs can adopt its principles and mindset to improve their business culture and output quality.

Every employee in the business has to buy into the Kaizen method for it to be successful. Since SMEs tend to have a closer relationship with their workers than large production companies, they find it easier to implement Kaizen.

Accepting and implementing Kaizen as an effective way of improving work quality sets the organization for operational excellence. Small incremental changes or improvements yield notable results over time. 

You can begin your Kaizen journey with these principles to get the desired result from implementing the Kaizen method.

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Martin Luenendonk

Editor at FounderJar

Martin loves entrepreneurship and has helped dozens of entrepreneurs by validating the business idea, finding scalable customer acquisition channels, and building a data-driven organization. During his time working in investment banking, tech startups, and industry-leading companies he gained extensive knowledge in using different software tools to optimize business processes.

This insights and his love for researching SaaS products enables him to provide in-depth, fact-based software reviews to enable software buyers make better decisions.