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Kaizen - Constant improvement as the winning strategy

kaizen method and philosophy
Categories: Lean & Agile
Blaz Kos
12 minute read

‘Kaizen’ is the Japanese word for “good change” (Kai = change, Zen = good), and describes the continuous improvement of all corporate functions, at all levels of the hierarchy. 

Kaizen is a competitive strategy in which all employees work together to create a strong culture of constant improvement.

The core philosophy behind Kaizen is simple: you can always make or do things better, even if they seem to work well in a particular moment. Furthermore, all problems should be seen as opportunities to improve things.

In Kaizen, it doesn’t matter whether the change happens at once or is a constant, whether the change is big or small, as long as it is a change for the better. Learn everything you need to know about the Kaizen method and philosophy.

The origins and benefits of Kaizen

The origins of Kaizen were in lean manufacturing and the Toyota Way set of principles. Today, Kaizen is utilized worldwide as an important competitive strategy pillar in many successful companies.

Ultimately, if you do not improve and grow (as an individual and an organization as a whole), you will eventually fall behind.

The main advantages of a correctly implemented Kaizen are most often:

  • A better workplace and a safer working environment
  • Better commitment and employee retention
  • Improved problem-solving skills and quality of teamwork
  • Increased competitiveness and customer satisfaction
  • Reduced waste and overly hard work
  • Increased productivity and overall company success

Every leader or HR manager should be familiar with Kaizen. So, let’s take a closer look at what the Kaizen philosophy and method are and how you can make Kaizen an important part of your company’s culture, employee’s mindset, and work agenda.

The basics of the Kaizen philosophy – continuous improvement without any excuses

Kaizen is both a philosophy and a method. As a philosophy, it encourages all employees to constantly grow personally and professionally, to look for possible improvements and then to initiate positive change in an organization. 

Also, Kaizen as a method provides a set of tools and recommendations for creating a concrete action plan for implementing specific improvements. It’s a practical guide how to implement change in an organization.

The Kaizen philosophy is based on 10 principles:

  1. Discard conventional fixed ideas.
  2. Think about how to do it, not why it cannot be done, make things happen.
  3. Do not make excuses or try to justify the past, start by questioning current and best practices.
  4. If something is wrong or you have made a mistake, correct it immediately.
  5. Do not seek perfection, do it right away even if it’s 50% of the target.
  6. Creativity before capital. Do not spend money on Kaizen, use your wisdom.
  7. You develop wisdom when faced with hardship.
  8. Ask “why” five times to seek the root cause (the ‘5-whys method’).
  9. Seek the wisdom of many people rather than the knowledge of one.
  10. Kaizen is endless, so never stop improving.

Two additional principles that are frequently mentioned in Kaizen are:

 11. Empower everyone on your team to be a part of the problem-solving process.
 12. Choose a simple solution, not the perfect one.

When a company follows the Kaizen philosophy, a person can achieve the “Zenkai” title (an ancient master famous for not wasting even a drop of water). The title goes to a person who makes a large contribution for the successful implementation and execution of Kaizen in the company.

The basics of the Kaizen method – point Kaizen, the Kaizen system, and Kaizen events

There are two types of improvement in the Kaizen method. The point Kaizen is implemented when something in a company is found to be broken or not working well, and then immediate action is taken to correct the situation. 

Point Kaizen most often happens quickly, without any planning. But many such small improvements accumulate over time and contribute to great overall revitalization of an organization.

Alternatively, the Kaizen system is a strategic planning method with the aim of directly addressing more complex and systemic problems and improving them in a short period of time. 

Complex and systemic challenges most often must be addressed in a dedicated, focused, and persistent manner. The combination of both approaches to improvement is what leads to a superior competitive organization; an organization that gets better and better with time.

Thirdly, Kaizen events are projects that can lead to major improvements in a short amount of time, usually in a 2–10-day period. Such improvement projects must have clear objectives, dedicated people, and enough other resources. 

Part of Kaizen events are also meetings, where (point or system) Kaizen projects are discussed, planned, and implemented. 

Kaizen is usually carried out by an individual in an organization, a group of people, or even an improvement suggestion system in today’s world of AI. When carrying out Kaizen events, it’s important to use the following toolset:

  • Gemba Kaizen – go to the real source, don’t just try to solve problems behind a desk
  • 5 Whys – always find the root cause
  • The PDCA cycle of improvement – use a systematic method to measure improvements
  • 5S program – you get most out of Kaizen when everything is standardized

‘Gemba Kaizen’ or ‘Genchi Genbutsu’

‘Gemba’ in Japanese means “the real place” (a place where value is created) or similarly ‘Genchi Genbutsu’ means go to the real source, out of your office or conference room. 

The main idea is that the problem is best visible and understandable when you go directly to the place where operations are performed and where the problem occurs (e.g. the factory floor in manufacturing). The “real place” is usually also where the best ideas on how to solve the problem can be found.

It’s one of the most difficult principles of Kaizen, because it’s much easier to try and solve a problem in an office or conference room. However, discussing the problem and possible solutions only theoretically, and rarely leads to the optimal solution. You can even make the situation worse. 

So, remember: When the problem occurs, the people responsible for the solution or improvement, must go to the source, out of their office. 

They must understand the full implications of a problem, investigate where the root cause lies; gather data, ideas, and opinions from various sources; and only then begin the decision-making process.

5 Whys, the PDCA cycle, and 5S program in Kaizen

When Kaizen is being implemented in practice, it’s usually combined with three lean production tools that follow the agenda of getting to the root cause of the problem, measuring the impact of change implemented in a data-driven way, and then standardizing the new way of doing things.

The first technique is called the 5 Whys Analysis,’ which aims to identify the root cause of the problem. If you really want to improve, you must find the real cause of the problem. 

The basic idea is quite simple, you repeat the question “why?” usually at least five times, until you find the root cause.

The second technique is called thePDCA cycle.’ The PDCA cycle is a system for constant improvement, where P stands for Plan, D for Do, C for Check, and A for Acknowledge and Act. The PDCA cycle is a never-ending process of improvement that should be followed in Kaizen.

  • Plan is about finding problems and preparing a plan
  • Do is about implementing and testing different solutions
  • Check is about analysis, reflection, and introspection
  • Act is about final implementation and standardization

To make it more practical, the PDCA cycle should look something like this:

  • P: Encourage all employees to get involved and help identify problems in an organization. Prioritize the problems and brainstorm potential solutions then for the most important problem (the one that presents the greatest opportunity). Encourage everyone to contribute creative ideas and then select a few winning solutions.
  • D: Create pilot programs, test runs, or other types of experiments to test the selected solution or several of them. The solution must be implemented in practice, in a controlled environment, so that the actual impact can be measured.
  • C: Measure the success of the solution(s) based on the agreed set of metrics and prepare a detailed analysis of what works best.
  • A: When the best solution has met all expectations, ensure that it is fully implemented and standardized. Start again with the “P phase,” finding new problems and further improvements.

The third technique used in Kaizen is called the 5S Program.’ The five S’s stand for seiri (tidiness), seiton (orderliness), seiso (cleanliness), seiketsu (standardization), and shitsuke (discipline – keep the effort going). 

In English, the words could also be sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain. It’s the most visible part of kaizen where in the end everything should shine, be in place, and get done in a standardized manner.

Kaizen is also an integral part of Just In Time production (JIT) and Total Quality Management (TQM).

The growth mindset and the learning organization

In western management practice, a concept similar to Kaizen is the so-called ‘learning organization.’ It’s a way for an organization to remain competitive in the business environment by constantly transforming itself. The five main characteristics of a learning company are: 

  • shared vision, 
  • personal mastery, 
  • team learning, 
  • systematic thinking, and 
  • mental models (the right mindset).

In recent years, the right way of thinking, otherwise known as the ‘growth mindset,’ had been popularized – which is a basic requirement for cultivating the Kaizen culture. 

Stanford professor Dr. Carol Dweck has found that the biggest difference between successful and unsuccessful people lies in their mindset. You can either have a fixed or a growth mindset.

If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your character and potential are unchangeable, and have been “written in stone” since birth. You assume that they cannot be modified or improved in a meaningful way. 

Thus, any success in that kind of mindset is the result of inherited talent, the given resources, and the environment you were born in. Instead of thinking of how to improve yourself, you hope that other people will be less competent than you.

Let’s look at a practical example. Intelligence. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that intelligence is a static thing. This usually leads to avoiding challenges, seeing efforts as fruitless, ignoring useful feedback, feeling threatened by others’ success, and giving up easily when challenges arise. 

Furthermore, it leads to a desire to only look smarter, but not really improve yourself. The final result of the fixed mindset is that people simply don’t develop their intellectual competences (crystallized intelligence) over time.

The second option is having a growth mindset. It means that you believe in personal evolution and that you can improve your character by working on yourself. 

If you have a growth mindset, you see yourself as being at a specific starting point with the option to constantly experiment, test new ideas, and improve yourself – your skill, beliefs, and competences.

In the growth mindset, intelligence is not a static thing, but rather one that can be developed. Instead of only trying to look smart, it leads you towards developing intelligence by constantly learning, thus improving yourself overall. 

The growth mindset and constant improvement leads to mastery

Other positive results of the growth mindset and constant improvement is also a greater persistence, seeing effort as the path to mastery, learning from criticism, and being inspired by others’ success. You see everything as a skill, and every skill can be practiced and improved.

It’s obvious that the fixed mindset leads to hiding your flaws, doing only things that you are naturally good at, feeling defined by failures, being unwilling to improve your relationships, not testing new things and experimenting, and feeling bad if everything doesn’t go as planned – even if you have learned something new.

Conversely, with a growth mindset, flaws and problems are only opportunities to improve. Unknown and new things bring learning opportunities, mastery leads to passion and purpose, and every failure is only a temporary setback. 

The growth mindset therefore leads to greater personal success, improvement of self-esteem and self-confidence, better relationships, constant learning, avoiding perfectionism, and becoming the best version of yourself. 

It’s obvious that the more people have the growth mindset in an organization, it’s easier to implement the Kaizen culture and method.

Start implementing the Kaizen philosophy and method today

Kaizen is a very flexible system, so you can find many different adaptations and success stories from the best companies in the world. Fortunately, Kaizen is not a rigid system, but very adaptable to an organization’s goals, work style, and culture. Here are a few ideas on how to start implementing Kaizen:

  • Organize a Kaizen event with your employees and brainstorm as many ideas as possible on how to improve your organization.
  • Select the most obvious problem in your organization and try to solve it with using the PDCA cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Act).
  • Start by analyzing where your organization produces the most waste, either in materials, in the production process, or in the daily use of employees’ time
  • Introduce the Zenkai quarterly title for a person who makes the greatest contribution to the improvement of your organization.
  • Start a coaching program in your organization, so that employees can develop the growth mentality more quickly and start helping to shape the Kaizen culture.

In the Spica Group, we passionately encourage our employees to constantly improve and grow. 

And with our set of tools (time tracking, attendance tracking, and access control), we help companies to make the most of their space and people’s time, especially with the goal to minimize any waste of time.

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