Understanding the Purposes behind Kaizen

You’ve heard of kaizen but are not sure what it is. Is it the right methodology for your project or organization? Should you host a kaizen event? Before we really talk about kaizen, we need to talk about Lean. Lean is a philosophy, a way a company operates. A company that is Lean is focused on continuously improving its processes and culture toward “less”. The goal of Lean is to help a company maintain a competitive advantage. How? By reducing waste as much as possible and increasing efficiency. If we do those things, we can then create value for the customer. Lean may also be used to help a company achieve its goals of things like environmental footprint.

You may have heard of a Lean Organization. Sometimes companies that use Lean thinking don’t even use the term Lean. They name their systems, like ‘Toyota Production System’ or the ‘Danaher Business System’. That’s because Lean isn’t a program or a system, it’s a way of thinking. And the way one company thinks or acts about Lean will be different than another.

Kaizen is one tool of the Lean philosophy. Kaizen is associated with simple, low-cost improvements, the ideas of which come from employees. Kaizen is not a big, dramatic, high-cost improvement. Masaaki Imai is the founder of the Kaizen Institute. He says, “Kaizen means improvement. Moreover, it means continuing improvement in personal life, home life, social life and working life. When applied to the workplace, Kaizen means continuing improvement involving everyone, managers and workers alike.” So, kaizen, as a tool, is involving all employees of the company toward continuous improvement. Its concept requires everyone from the organization to be involved in seeing and making changes toward improvement. And this requires leaders to give up some of their authority, or say-so, in the improvement process. “In essence, kaizen is about coaching and mentoring people to become better at what they do in all aspects of their work.” (Ortiz)

Kaizen can use a systematic approach like the PDCA model: plan, do, check, act. Using this helps a business develop a process-oriented culture. Kaizen can be implemented using kaizen events, which are also known as kaizen blitz. These events are a way for teams to organize to apply other lean tools like 5S (which is improving a work environment), standard work (like establishing best practices), and kanban (a system for organizing parts and materials)

What distinguishes kaizen events from other continuous improvement procedures? The way kaizen events are done helps to promote the continuous improvement philosophy throughout the business. It has to do with culture, time, proof and teamwork.

  • Culture Kaizen events are meant to happen on a reoccurring basis. This helps prevent an organization from slipping into the old way of doing things and helps foster the continuous improvement philosophy. Kaizen events are picked, and people assigned, by a steering committee who oversees the continuous improvement program, reviews results, and ensures any lingering action items from an event are completed within 30 days. This helps develop a culture of continuous improvement.
  • Time Having a kaizen event sets aside time for continuous improvement. If we don’t make the time, we rarely get to do it. Daily activities eat up our time and don’t allow real improvements to be made.
  • Proof Kaizen events are bursts of improvement made by a selected team of people from throughout the organization, usually done within three to five days. These changes are quick, so its benefits are immediately seen. Some kaizen events end with a tour of the new area by other employees. A showcase of the work and how it made things better. This provides proof of how continuous improvement can have a positive effect.
  • Teamwork And lastly, kaizen events promote teamwork. Team members are assigned by management and can be from different parts of an organization. For example: Bob from accounting, Sue from assembly operations, Pete from quality assurance, and Michelle from R&D may be pulled together as a kaizen event team to work in the stockroom area. Working with others from other departments on continuous improvement helps foster the company culture and develop relationships.

Now that we know what kaizen is, what’s today’s insight to action? How do product designers fit into kaizen?

You may be part of a team for a kaizen event. If so, keep an open mind and use your skills to provide a new constructive viewpoint for continuous improvement.

If a kaizen event happened, helped to make sure the results are standardized, or that you’re getting the training to do it right. Find out who owns the change to monitor and maintain it. Doing these things will help with the success of your company’s continuous improvement system.

Find out: can you submit a kaizen suggestion? If so, learn how to do it.

If your company doesn’t do kaizen events, that’s okay. Kaizen, or continuous improvement, will never go out of style. Watch for areas within your work processes that could use a little continuous improvement. Do what you can to make it happen. Being invested in your work, and how your business does its work, is good practice for you and generally a good move for your career.


For more explanation about a Lean philosophy, visit www.lean.org/WhatsLean/ 

For more background about Kaizen in quality, visit www.kaizen.com/what-is-kaizen.html 

Book Ortiz, Chris A. Kaizen and Kaizen Event Implementation. Prentice Hall, 2009.  Mr. Ortiz reviews the how-to implement Kaizen and host Kaizen Events. He includes examples, case studies, and best and worst practices.

Article Manos, Anthony. “The Benefits of Kaizen and Kaizen Events.” Quality Progress, February 2007, pp 47-48.  Mr. Manos compares kaizen, kaizen events, and traditional improvements and lists key benefits and caveats of kaizen events.

Here is a fun video about 5S, of hospital staff applying lean concepts to their storage room. “Intro to 5S: The better way to organize!” YouTube, uploaded by Lean 5S in MSICU, 1 December 2015, https://youtu.be/aMkXICM1-98