What is Kaizen?

The term kaizen is ubiquitous, but what does kaizen actually mean? And how is it used? Kaizen is a Japanese term that literally means "good change" or "Change for the Better."  When we improve a process, a product, or a service in an incremental way over time, this is continuous improvement.  And continuous improvement is kaizen.  The way kaizen happens is with full involvement from the people who actually do the work.  This works through a concept of Lean or the Toyota Production System that many people call "Respect for People" but might better be understood as "Respect for Humanity."  This is the idea that people intrinsically have creativity and thinking skills that are largely untapped.  Instead of asking employees to simply do their jobs, we must involve them in the process of improvement.  They will be able to help identify obstacles that get in the way of their work and ultimately kaizen can happen.

But, I believe kaizen needs a framework in which to work properly.  If we just have a suggestion system, we might develop and implement some ideas for improvement, but this will not make the kind of impact to an organization that we might be expecting.  In order to achieve a significant impact, we need to have direction for our kaizen.  There are two keys to this direction.  The first involves setting goals and objectives and cascading these goals and objectives to every part of an organization.  If people within a department understand what they need to achieve, they can then begin to identify obstacles and countermeasures to achieve their goals.  This is called strategy deployment or hoshin kanri  The second key is to follow an improvement or problem solving process that follows the PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) or PDSA (Plan Do Study Adjust) cycle.  In Lean thinking, the process is typically called A3 Problem Solving or Toyota Business Practices.  To achieve a culture of daily kaizen, the most effective methodology I've found to date that works within the A3 Problem Solving process is known as Toyota Kata or the Improvement Kata.  Each day, we are experimenting in an effort to move from our current condition to a target condition.  This is true kaizen.

What about kaizen events?   A kaizen event or rapid improvement event is a team based event in which individuals, including those who do the work to be improved plus others, work together to improve processes.  The original idea behind this was developed by Shingijutsu Consulting, when they came to the U.S. to implement the Toyota Production System.  The week-long event was utilized to implement new model lines (assembly lines).  By the end of the week, the new layout and standard work was in place, or at least being tested.   Within the lean community, there is much debate about what such events should be called.  There is a Japanese word kaikaku which refers to breakthrough improvement, and many people within the lean community think we should use this word instead of kaizen since rapid or breakthrough improvement is not the same as continuous improvement.  I believe the proverbial ship has sailed; while I agree that kaizen really does mean continuous improvement, kaizen event is a term that has been in place for 25 years or more, and we should continue to use it in this way.

The final question is: should companies be doing daily kaizen or kaizen events?  I believe that daily kaizen is essential in order to create a company of problem solvers - people who begin to think in a certain pattern.  However, I also believe there is merit to holding improvement events for rapid improvement.  These can serve as hands-on learning experiences, and they can enable organizations to attain improvement fairly rapidly.  Early in the lean transformation process, I believe kaizen events should be used very often.  However, as a company matures in its lean journey, daily kaizen should be the primary means to improvement.