What is Kaizen?


Kaizen is a Japanese word that loosely translates into “a culture of continuous improvement.” It is a driver of innovation within the Lean manufacturing framework, and an engine for change.

What sets kaizen apart from other improvement programs is that kaizen is centered on incremental change. In this way, yesterday’s successes are the basis for today’s innovation.

Lean thinking is a modern methodology interpreted from the Toyota Production System (TPS).

The architects of the TPS knew that frequent sweeping changes would cause disruption and interrupt production flows—ultimately producing waste and inefficiency.

Smaller incremental changes that happen daily, however, are much more sustainable. A small change can be implemented with little effort or cost.

A small change is minimally disruptive, and a small change builds on current best practices.

Many Lean organizations mandate that their staff produce one kaizen suggestion per day related to their area. In this way, decision makers are presented with a steady stream of improvement ideas. These suggestions are not only unique, but also very relevant; who knows the work better than the people performing it?

The Big Picture

Like so many other Lean tools, the concept of kaizen is much more than the sum of its parts.

The successes and increases in efficiency and productivity that continuously improving operations brings are certainly a business asset, but the real strength of kaizen is in its formative culture.

We know that modern organizations must be equipped to face a changing business landscape. Technology, competition, and a global economy are just a few of the dynamic hurdles firms must overcome.

We also know that large organizations can be highly resistant to change.

Consider this: if a portion of every staff member’s day—from the front line to the corner office—was spent uncovering new ways to change operations for the better, would those people be more or be less comfortable with change?

At its root, innovation is change.

Innovation is change for the better, and in this context if change is viewed positively within an organization, the overall level of flexibility increases.

When elements within an organization are more receptive to change, the organization as a whole can better respond to a changing business world.

Everyone Is Someone

The idea that the spark of innovation can come from anyone within an organization no matter their role is a common theme throughout the Lean framework.

From the beginning, the designers of the Toyota Production System knew that staff members who are involved and valued develop a sense of ownership. They are more likely to see eye-to-eye with management if everyone is working toward the same goal, and they are more likely to respect their workplace and coworkers.

Ownership—whether of ideas, a project, a space, or an entire business unit—is discussed a lot today. The Toyota Production System, and by extension Lean, got ahead of that conversation by engineering individual ownership into organizational culture and codifying it in daily activities.

Further evidence of this focus on the value of staff can be found in the eight sources of muda, or physical waste. The opportunity cost of underutilizing employee talent is right alongside other traditional manufacturing waste such as defective production and overproduction.

The Bottom Line

A firm culture of kaizen, or continuous improvement, is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Put all together, on the factory floor kaizen means reducing waste and increasing the efficiency of operations one small step at a time.

On the balance sheet, those small improvements add up to large savings and waste reductions.

In the eyes of staff, this same incremental innovation is a contributor and driver of change within their discipline and within their workplace.

In the eyes of the customer, a total organizational commitment to maximizing value can only be positive.

And in the marketplace, flexibility and a culture that values change mean competitive success and the realization of long-term goals.

When it comes to growth and innovation, kaizen leaves no stone unturned.

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