What Is Kaizen? One Of The Top Strategies For Continuous Improvement

What is Kaizen

By Simon Walker, President of TPC Automation

Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company was in many ways the father of the assembly line manufacturing process and mass production. Ford famously said your car could be any color as long as it is black. He also signposted the essence of Kaizen, suggesting that rather than there being big problems to solve that there are “just a lot of little problems”.

Top manufacturing companies around the world use the concept of Kaizen to continuously improve. Read on to understand the answer to the question: “What is Kaizen?”

What is Kaizen?

Lean manufacturing processes are about improving processes to achieve more efficiency, better quality and to reduce waste. They also improve workplace safety and productivity.  Kaizen is the lean manufacturing process developed at Toyota, in the mid 20th Century, that encapsulates all these benefits in a characteristically Japanese style.

The “little problems” Henry Ford described are at the heart of the Kaizen approach. Small steps towards the efficiency goals eventually accumulate. The incremental improvements over many aspects of the manufacturing process deliver major improvements when addressed continuously over time.

Kaizen’s History

The Japanese heritage of Kaizen makes it all the more interesting as a business approach. The recovery of Japanese industries after the Second World War was impressive considering how devastated Japan had been. It was the ideas American management consultant William Edwards Deming that brought about much of the change needed.

Deming had been a management consultant in the United States for some years, teaching statistical process control among other things. An opportunity to present some of his ideas on quality lead to major changes in the approach of Japanese corporations including Toyota.

Kaizen, Toyota’s interpretation of these ideas on quality is a compound word. “Kai” means improvement and “Zen” means good. This translates as “continuous improvement”.

Continuous Improvement

The attraction of the Kaizen approach is partly because it is a low-risk approach. Because it involves small steps, it demands little investment. The returns are modest too but it’s easy to see how they can accumulate to make a significant difference to manufacturing performance.

Behind the concept of Kaizen is the belief that there is always an opportunity for improvement. The changes may be small, but then they are also less disruptive, cheaper and easier for people to engage with than radical change.

Ownership for these small changes lies with workers. This departure from the traditional top-down approach releases latent creativity in the workforce. High performing teams can then contribute to business success.

This also has the benefit of greater employee engagement with the proposed changes as they are often initiated by the workers themselves.

Kaizen Principles

Kaizen can seem like a way of life for manufacturing rather than a management process. It begins with the commitment that the company should never stop improving. Old practices and traditions must be removed.

Each person in the organization has a responsibility to pro-actively make improvements from the CEO to managers and on to the front-line workers. This is action-orientated rather than simply suggesting improvements.

There is no assumption that new ideas will be successful. Rather, they needed to be tried and checked. If necessary, new ways of working will need to be corrected and further improved.

Trial and error are a continuous improvement approach that encourages forward momentum. Action rather than the inertia caused by fear of failure. It’s not about achieving perfection in one leap but rather starting the journey and making progress, incrementally.

Making mistakes is fine if they are small ones. If you are a person who doesn’t make mistakes, as E.J. Phelps said, you’re somebody who “does not usually make anything”.

Everyone has a voice in the Kaizen process. Everybody is encouraged to make suggestions and to identify solutions to problems.

As Jeff Bezos of Amazon said, decisions based on facts rather than position have the benefit that “they overrule the hierarchy”.  Often the people closest to the problem have the clearest ideas about how to solve them and that can be the workers on the production line.

Having a wide base of input is an effective way of generating ideas as well as evaluating them. Multiple opinions help refine suggestions. They also help work out the implications of changes elsewhere in the manufacturing process.

Getting to the origin of a problem is important for Kaizen. If solutions are going to be successful they need to be addressing the causes of problems. Asking the question “Why?” five times can help.

The improvements suggested by the Kaizen approach are often low-cost solutions. The principle is that if the investment is small there is less likely to be resistance to making the change and less risk of a big loss if it fails.

Reducing or Eliminate Waste

A key aspect of the Kaizen approach is the elimination of waste. This concept of waste is defined in a broad sense. It’s a way of understanding how the physical working environment can be arranged in a better way.

Sometimes referred to as the 5S framework it uses Japanese words that when written phonetically start with an S. Fortunately there is an English version of each of these words that coincidentally start with S.

“Sort” is about organizing the workplace so that the things you need are close to you. Things you need less often are further away. Things you don’t need are removed altogether.

“Set in order” is about how things are arranged in the workplace. Tools and components should be easy to reach and use. They should be arranged in a way that makes sense for the work that you are doing.

“Shine” is about cleanliness. A clean workplace is more efficient and safer too. Waste material is not allowed to accumulate and get in the way.

“Standardize” is about having routines in the workplace. These may cover the frequency of cleanups and best practices in starting and finishing work.

“Sustain” is about maintaining the standard. The discipline required to keep the momentum going can be tougher than making any change. Sustaining the change and the 5Ses has to be constant.

Kaizen is Never Done

There is no end to the Kaizen process because there’s always another improvement to be made. What is Kaizen? It’s a forever process that produces remarkable results as long as it is practiced.