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Kaizen is a company wide philosophy oriented toward continuous improvement. The literal definition extends to personal life, home life, and social life. In business it applies to continuing improvement of everyone both managers and employees. The main idea is to maintain and improve work standards, with responsibility delegated to the worker.

Kaizen strategy is one of the most important concepts in Japanese management and is credited with being key to Japanese competitive success. One important aspect of Kaizen is its emphasis on process, complemented with management acknowledgement. This contrasts with results-oriented management which is ingrained in western thinking. Most Kaizen focus is on implementation.

Regarded as a conceptual "umbrella" consisting of a collection of Japanese practices, Kaizen includes the following:

  • Customer orientation
  • Total Quality Control
  • Robotics
  • QC circles
  • Suggestion systems
  • Automation
  • Discipline in the workplace
  • Total Productive Maintenance
  • Kanban
  • Just-in-time
  • Zero defects
  • New product development
  • Small group activities
  • Productivity improvement
  • Statistical Quality Control
  • Cooperative labor/management relations

Kaizen is a daily activity whose purpose goes beyond simple productivity improvement. It is also a process that, when done correctly, humanizes the workplace, eliminates overly hard work (both mental and physical) "muri", and teaches people how to perform experiments on their work using the scientific method and how to learn to spot and eliminate waste in business processes.

Principles of Kaizen

To be most effective Kaizen must operate with three principles in place:

  • Consider the process and the results (not results-only);
  • Systemic thinking of the whole process and not just that immediately in view (i.e. big picture, not solely the narrow view); and
  • A learning, non-judgmental, non-blaming (because blaming is wasteful) approach and intent.

People at all levels of an organization participate in kaizen, from the CEO down, as well as external stakeholders when applicable. The format for kaizen can be individual, suggestion system, small group, or large group. In Toyota it is usually a local improvement within a workstation or local area and involves a small group in improving their own work environment and productivity. This group is often guided through the Kaizen process by a line supervisor, indeed, sometimes this is the line supervisors key role.

Whilst Kaizen (in Toyota) usually delivers small improvements, the culture of continual aligned small improvements and standardisation yields large results in the form of compound productivity improvement. Hence the English translation of Kaizen can be: "continuous improvement", or "continual improvement."

This philosophy differs from the "command-and-control" improvement programs of the mid-twentieth century. Kaizen methodology includes making changes and monitoring results, then adjusting. Large-scale pre-planning and extensive project scheduling are replaced by smaller experiments, which can be rapidly adapted as new improvements are suggested.

Tools of Kaizen

Being a PHILOSOPHY Kaizen needs some concrete tools for its actual realization. Traditionally Japanese Warriors used to carry 7 tools at the time of war so being a Japanese concept KAIZEN can also be implemented with the help of seven special tools. These are:

  • Histograms
  • Cause and Effect Diagrams
  • Check Sheets
  • Pareto Diagrams
  • Graphs
  • Control Charts
  • Scatter Diagrams

The principles of Kaizen Implementation 

  • Human resources are the most important company asset, processes must evolve by gradual improvement rather than radical changes,
  • Improvement must be based on statistical/quantitative evaluation of process performance.
  • Support throughout the entire structure is necessary to become successful at developing a strong Kaizen approach. Management as well as workers need to believe in the Kaizen idea and strive toward obtaining the small goals in order to reach overall success. Therefore, all members of an organization need to be trained in a manner to support this idea structure. Resources, measurements, rewards, and incentives all need to be aligned to and working with the Kaizen structure of ideas. It is the little things that add up to bigger things.

Basic Tips for Kaizen Activities

  • Discard conventional fixed ideas.
  • Think of how to do it, not why it cannot be done.
  • Do not make excuses. Start by questioning current practices.
  • Do not seek perfection. Do it right away even if for only 50% of target.
  • Correct it right away, if you make mistake.
  • Do not spend money for KAIZEN, use your wisdom.
  • Wisdom is brought out when faced with hardship.
  • Ask "WHY?" five times and seek root causes.
  • Seek the wisdom of ten people rather than the knowledge of one.
  • KAIZEN ideas are infinite.

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