Improvement is not a one-time event. There is no shortage of techniques, tools, and software that present themselves as the solution to all of your problems, but real-world business environments are never that simple. Lasting change happens in increments, over time, each new improvement building on the one before.

Today we’ll look at how applying the Japanese concept of Kaizen brings continuous improvement to your business practices, increases productivity, and improves team morale.

What is Kaizen?

In Japanese, Kaizen is formed of two characters – kai/change and zen/good. Before the concept became integral to Lean Manufacturing, it was used to simply mean change for the better.

Kaizen hieroglyph

After World War II, during the development of the Toyota Production System, Kaizen became a business concept and was used to mean “continuous improvements” or “small incremental improvements”. While Toyota was focused on improving their manufacturing capabilities, Kaizen was to be applied to all areas of a company – not just the factory floor.

The forefathers of the Toyota Production System and Lean Manufacturing, Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo were inspired by the powerful manufacturing techniques of the American giants like Henry Ford. However, they recognized the shortcomings of their competitors’ system: the human element was missing. Employees were seen as nothing more than physical manpower.

Lean Manufacturing recognizes that people at all levels of a company have valuable insights to contribute. Turning these insights into incremental improvements is at the heart of Kaizen. More than a method, Kaizen is a philosophy – a different way of thinking about work.

Implementing Kaizen

At its core, Kaizen involves identifying a problem and making it better – over and over again. While more of a philosophy than a strict methodology, the following techniques have become standard steps in order to implement Kaizen in the workplace.

PDCA Cycle

The first technique is known as the Plan – Do – Check – Act or PDCA cycle.

PDCA Cycle

  • Plan

Assessing a current or new process to see how it can be improved. At this stage, it’s important to consider what metrics and KPIs will be used to measure the new output and what baseline the new results will be compared to. We recommend planning and assessing multiple small changes over one big sweeping change – it makes the effects of each component change more observable.

  • Do

Implementing the plan. Observing the process in action and gathering hard data to assess how effective (or ineffective) the change has been.

  • Check

Evaluating the results and data collected during the do phase. Is the new output an improvement from the baseline? Were the outcomes the same as expected? Did the Do phase cause any unintended changes?

  • Act

Did the check phase show that the implemented plan has been successful? Then the company acts to make this the new standard. If no improvement is observed, no change is made. Unsuccessful, unexpected, and unclear results can lead to multiple iterations of the PDCA cycle.

Root Cause Analysis: 5 Whys

Are you solving the true cause of a problem, or just masking a symptom? The 5 Whys is a technique to drill down to the root cause of issues within your process. Each answer leads to the next question in the chain.

For example:

Problem: Customers are not happy with the latest software update
1. Why? Customers say changes to the UX are clunky and unintuitive
2. Why? UX not tested properly before release
3. Why? The feature was finished too close to release date for full UX testing
4. Why? Estimated completion time was too optimistic
5. Why? Delivery date estimates did not rely on statistical methods such as Monte Carlo simulation

The Human Factor

All too frequently, companies looking for a magic bullet turn to new methodologies and techniques to increase productivity. The PDCA cycle and the 5 Whys are tools that you can use to implement Kaizen, but the most important element is the human factor.

Everyone in the organization can spot issues, come up with new ideas, and contribute with their insights. Bringing people together from different areas of your company to collaborate can lead to out-of-the-box solutions as well as improve team cohesiveness.

For a company to have a Kaizen mindset, any team member should feel comfortable pointing out issues and making suggestions for improvement. Management must encourage participation and openness, without reacting defensively to perceived criticism. When every team member can trust their ideas are taken seriously, they feel heard and valued, and their commitment to the company, process, and team improves.

Kaizen and Kanban

Kaizen and Kanban both have historical roots in the Toyota Production System and are considered cornerstones of Lean Manufacturing. The methods are different but highly complementary.

Kanban board with swimlanes

The Kanban method visualizes and provides an approach to managing your workflows. Flow metrics such as cycle time, throughput, and WIP provide hard data to assess baselines, measure improvements, and track trends over time. The Kanban board makes blockages and problem areas of your process visible at a glance. These features make it easy to identify problems to solve, as well as to measure the effects of any changes.

Similarly, Kaizen techniques can be used to decide which actions to take and find and eliminate the root causes of blockages. The Kaizen mindset of continuous improvement is absolutely necessary for the successful implementation of Kanban.

The benefits of Kaizen culture are not only measured by higher levels of efficiency and productivity. The most profound effect involves your team. While sweeping changes imposed by management often meet resistance, changes that are implemented from the ground up are more readily adopted. Having a direct impact on the way work is done and being invested in the process as a whole makes team members feel valued. The combination of Kaizen and Kanban leads to more collaboration, stronger teams, and higher morale.

Have you implemented Kaizen techniques? What changes have you noticed? Have you used Kanban and Kaizen together? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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