Kaizen: Everything You Need to Know and More

Kaizen is the engine that drives innovation within Lean systems and enterprises.

Kaizen is a philosophy, not a concrete tool.

Translated from its native Japanese, it cannot be summarized into a single word in English.

Instead, it can be understood to loosely mean “a culture of continuous improvement.” Like so many aspects of success, what kaizen looks like in practice is much easier said than done.


Many of us know what the word “innovation” means, or at least what innovation means to us. It is important to remember, however, that the Lean method has a concrete definition of innovation. It is this definition that will be used from here on out.

The designers of the Lean method understood that radical overnight change is in fact detrimental to many organizations.

Think about it.

If your organization changed overnight, wouldn’t there be a transition period while staff and systems acclimated to the fluctuations in policy? Those irregularities are sources of cost, and cost (in the form of waste) is the archenemy of the Lean framework.

Additionally, sweeping changes enter uncharted territory.

No matter how much research or investigative work is done to understand what the future may hold, that data is never as good as the record of operations is in hindsight.

The Toyota Production System (now adapted into the Lean manufacturing method we know today) was the result of post-war Japan’s attempts to rebuild and to modernize their struggling economy. An island nation devastated by war (no matter how determined) cannot spare valuable resources adapting to self-inflicted changes.

This unique set of circumstances is what led to Lean’s obsessive waste reduction tendencies. The designers of the methodology understood that wild and unguided radical change would produce excessive waste with little to show for it.

Instead, the concept of kaizen was born.

Kaizen is a culture of continuous improvement that builds on existing successes, then further refines them to better capitalize on the work that has already been done while refusing to overextend resources and capital.

Within the world of Lean, these changes that elevate waste reduction efforts and prioritize productivity are known as innovation.

Incremental Change Is Simpler

Change in the incremental sense is easier on an organization than large-scale change.

The implementation of a series of incremental changes means that any transition period is shorter and therefore less expensive. It also means that changes are inherently less complex when put into effect.

Simplicity is a core aspect of Lean philosophy, and for good reason.

Simple changes are easier to teach, easier to standardize, and easier to roll back if it turns out they don’t perform as anticipated.

Also apparent is the fact that a drastic change is expensive, and there is no way around that. If you’re a manufacturer (or any business organization, for that matter) you are looking to keep the revenue-producing aspects of the business up and running as much as possible.

The less downtime there is, the less money wasted.

Incremental change means a minimal amount of downtime for the moneymaking aspects of the business, while simultaneously streamlining operations.

The concept of kaizen is a driver for organizational improvement, otherwise known as innovation.
Kaizen is the engine that powers the continuous improvement successes of Lean organizations. The idea of continuous, incremental change, is so powerful that personal trainers use a similar approach with their clients.

Lean Thinking Means Never Stop Innovating

Understanding that reinventing the wheel could do more harm than good, the designers of the original Toyota Production System focused on innovation as the key generator of operational success.

The Lean method values the input of every employee, from the C-suite all the way to the front line. In another move true to Lean form, these efforts to never stop innovating were codified and standardized.

At many Lean enterprises, each employee is expected to come up with and put forth their “kaizen suggestion for the day.” To take the concept further, many Lean organizations employ brainstorming sessions known as a “kaizen blitz.”

Attendees are expected to offer as many ideas as possible that will spur innovation across the many facets of an organization. A kaizen blitz is an intensive session designed to tackle a single issue with the input of everyone.

Not a common sight in the Western business world, this “everyone is someone” concept was the original crowdsourcing approach to problem solving.

Not every idea will be a winner, but the concept of tapping every member of staff for an unending stream of ideas that innovate (that generate incremental change) means that decision-makers have more information to work with.

And who knows, maybe an innocent suggestion will be the catalyst for organization-wide transition.

Everyone Is Someone

The idea that true innovation is derived from the input of staff members at all levels is the engine that powers all kaizen activity within an organization.

The dedicated kaizen blitz aside, many of the original Lean organizations expected a minimum of one innovation-minded kaizen suggestion per day.

Remember, in the midst of a post-war society, Japan was eager and determined not only to kick-start their economy but to modernize and compete at all costs.

Geopolitical factors contributed to the success of these endeavors, but the reality is that Japanese manufacturing enterprises faced a unique set of daunting challenges. While other firms of the era had the luxury of relying on traditional top-down organization, Japanese manufacturing had to rebuild in the face of severely depleted resources.

The result was what would later become the Toyota Production System.

From this waste elimination mindset, what we know as “Lean thinking” came to be.

To be clear, this concept didn’t originate from the upper echelon of Japanese manufacturers; it originated from the unique perspectives and the input of every employee, from the very frontline ranks of the factory floor to the administrative offices of management.

Modern Lean thinking has inherited this everyone-is-someone ideology, and the focus on people has contributed strongly to the Lean framework’s robust qualities as well as its lasting success.

Kaizen From Abstract to Concrete

Kaizen is a concept and an organizational best practice that reflects the culture of Lean thinking.

While there is no kaizen tool or machine, there are best practice methods that can be used to gather staff input that is contributory to innovation.

A kaizen form, a simple sheet of paper with space to write and some basic category information for sorting, can be distributed to all staff.

Standardizing the innovation process and gathering ideas and suggestions from every member of staff is the only way to know that you are doing everything possible to spur innovation.

When yesterday’s innovation is today’s baseline, an organization truly can grow by leaps and bounds.

This kaizen form is a structured approach to standardizing and cementing the gains made by kaizen activities.
A sample kaizen suggestion form. Kaizen documentation standardizes and manages the incremental changes that power continuous improvement across an organization. In this example, the change from relying on a single finishing tool to swapping between several becomes the new baseline. As that process is implemented, operators and decision makers will find new ways to optimize and reduce waste from the process.

Comfortable with Change

Innovation, growth, and continuous improvement are all key ingredients in Lean’s winning recipe.

This perpetual state of change has another benefit, too: baking an acceptance of change into operations and into all levels of an organization.

Change can be good and change can be bad—and often it is that uncertainty that makes organizations (and the people who make them up) resistant to change.

What we do know is that in today’s world of continual change, organizations that are flexible and accepting of change have a distinct edge. On the other side of the table are the organizations that, for whatever reasons, are intolerant of change.

They are unwilling to correct their course when they spot dangerous waters ahead.

It is these organizations that will be outmaneuvered and outflanked by firms that embrace change as a driver of innovation.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that kaizen, like many aspects of Lean thinking, is a simple concept that is much larger than the sum of its parts.

Wild, unguided, sweeping changes produce unforeseen results and generate bottlenecks and downtime. On the other hand, a system of continuous improvement generates incremental results that are not disruptive. These changes, known as innovation, establish new baselines and drive operations ever upward and onward.

When an organization embraces change and identifies change as an engine for improvement, each staff member—and the organization as a whole—has a favorable view of change.

This results in flexibility and less resistance to the changes and course corrections that modern businesses must take.

In short, kaizen is the key.

This article is sourced from the bestselling beginner's handbook the Lean: QuickStart Guide published by ClydeBank Media, 2016. This simplified guide is now in its second edition.

The next steps to take:

  1. If you found this post helpful, take a moment to share it. Even better, tell us in the comments!
  2. Continue exploring the world of Lean thinking and process optimization with these helpful posts:

KISS - Keep it Simple, Successful

DOWNTIME - Uncover and Eliminate Waste

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