If you know the vocabulary and methods of lean manufacturing, you know the terms kaizen and kaizen event. You may even have participated in a kaizen culture or a kaizen event.
On the other hand, you may have never heard these terms, or maybe you’ve heard them but don’t yet know what they mean. If so, this article is for you, because we’re going to tell you what kaizen is. In a different article, we clue you in on what a kaizen event is as well, and we’ll explain the differences.
To learn even more, check out our courses on lean manufacturing.
So let’s get on in our effort to answer the question: What is Kaizen?
Kaizen is a Japanese word that translates to something like “change for better.” The concept of kaizen is one of the cornerstones of lean manufacturing. A simple way to think of it is as a process of continual improvement.
In a work place, kaizen is a never-ending process in which everyone at a company, from the highest managers to the newest rank and file hire, is encouraged to make small changes (or suggest them to management) to continually improve work processes.
The ultimate goal of kaizen is to suggest and make changes that increase value. Value in this sense means value as perceived by the company’s customers–what they are willing to pay more for.
The primary way to increase value is to eliminate waste in a work process. Waste is defined as things that happen at work that don’t increase value. Our What Is Lean? article goes into more detail and reducing waste as part of lean.
The lean idea of kaizen is closely linked with the idea of standard work.
In lean, it’s considered important to have work done in a standard way. However, that doesn’t mean the standard way to do work can never change.
If a worker comes up with an idea to make word more efficient (by increasing value and/or decreasing waste), the change is put into effect. But then the change is monitored and the results of the change are measured. Those measurements are compared to earlier measurements of the same work process before the change occurred. If the change truly did increase value, it’s kept and a new standard is created. If the change didn’t increase value, it’s scrapped, and the company returns to the old method and/or looks for a new way to modify the process.
This process continues as long as the company does.
The goal of kaizen isn’t to make a single big change with drastic results. Instead, it’s to crease a never-ending series of small changes, each of which leads to small improvements. The total effect of all those small changes, however, is a large improvement.
In many companies, change comes from above–from management. This can create a few problems.
First, managers often don’t know the work processes, work flows, and work situations as well as their workers do. And so they wind up directing change “from above” even though workers in each work area know the work process better and are typically more able to suggest effective improvements.
And second, when managers dictate change from above, it’s often difficult to get employees to buy in. Workers get tired of being told what to do instead of having a say in what happens. This is true even if the ideas from above are good ones. But, as noted above, that’s not always the case, so this lack of employee buy-in can quickly multiply.
But kaizen flips the traditional order upside-down. In kaizen, employees are given the power to make suggestions. In fact, one of management’s key roles in a kaizen culture is to train workers about kaizen and to encourage workers to make suggestions for continuous improvement.
Once workers understand their role in kaizen and get used to doing it, they’ll become more active, engaged workers, and the process of continuous improvement will begin moving forward, little bit by little bit. When employees see their suggestions implemented, and see the improvements that result over time, they’ll get even more excited and become even more active participants in the kaizen culture at your workplace. Kaizen will help you create a continuous self-improvement cycle–lather, rinse, repeat.
For more about valuing employees and getting them involved at work, check this article on Safety Differently, this article on Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), this article on the TWI Job Methods program, and this article on Employee Motivation, Creativity, Innovation, and Engagement.
If kaizen calls for having employees come up with suggestions for continuous improvement, it’s management’s job to support, review, and help implement these ideas.
As mentioned above, this starts with introducing workers to kaizen, training them to use kaizen and to focus on key “lean” concepts (such as increasing value as perceived by the customer and decreasing “waste”), and encouraging workers to continually make suggestions for continuous improvement. For example, some companies set a specific target for the number of suggestions from each employee, team, or department.
It also means reviewing the employees’ ideas, implementing the good ones quickly, and making sure employees know their ideas have been implemented–or explaining why they haven’t. Employees will quickly lose interest in any improvement effort at work if their input isn’t sought, if it seems to them that their input isn’t valued, if their ideas are implemented but only after a very lo-o-o-o-o-ng time, if they never receive notice or feedback when their idea was put into action, or if they’re never told why their idea wasn’t tried out.
The application of the kazien continuous improvement philosophy is a core part of lean manufacturing theory. It’s often one of the first elements of lean implemented at a manufacturing company–along with 5S.
Here’s a sample from our online 5S training course:
The use of kaizen to increase workplace efficiency and quality began in manufacturing. And you’ll probably most often hear kaizen discussed in a manufacturing and/or lean manufacturing context. But kaizen can be and has been used successfully in other industries, including high-tech, financial, government, healthcare, and more. So if you’re not in manufacturing, don’t think kaizen can’t be implemented at your workplace.
You may have heard of kaizen and also heard of kaizen events, and maybe you’ve wondered if they’re the same thing. Short answer: they’re not.
Kaizen is a never-ending process of continuous improvements in all areas of the workplace based on suggestions from all employees. Each change is small, but the sum total effect of those changes over time is large.
By contrast, a kaizen event is a short-term (2-5 day), focused burst of improvement that is directed toward one work process or area and is performed by a specific kaizen team. The scope of a kaizen event is larger than the scope of any one suggested improvement during “every day/continuous kaizen.” And likewise, the resulting change from a kaizen event would almost always be more significant.
While a company can use both–and there’s good reason to do so–they’re not the same thing.
Other lean concepts related to kaizen that you should know are:
For more on lean, please see our What Is Lean: Introducing Employees to Lean Manufacturing article.
Here are some additional kaizen resources to check out.
We hope that answers some or even most of your questions about kaizen and what it is. Let us know your additional questions or thoughts about kaizen in the comments below.
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