An Introduction to Kaizen

By Jon Miller Updated on May 12th, 2019

Kaizen (改善) is a Japanese word meaning “improvement”. The symbol kai means to change, to renew, to correct something that is wrong, and zen means “good” – there is no relation to Zen Buddhism. The word kaizen itself does not imply “continuous” or “continual” or never-ending. However, in modern business, kaizen refers to a particular brand of continuous improvement activity that engages all functions and all people in an organization in pursuing both personal and process excellence.

We trace the modern history of kaizen to Toyota Motor Corporation in the second half of the twentieth century. In the early 1950s Toyota found itself nearly bankrupt, was forced by banks to restructure, and vowed to never be in that position again. They adopted many business practices from the West including the Creative Ideas Suggestion System based on what they observed in Henry Ford factories, and Dr. Deming’s ideas on quality management including Quality Circles and the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. From the U.S. War Department’s 1942 Training Within Industry practices, the Job Methods approach became a model for the kaizen approach. Toyota made the most out of their shortages of cash, advanced manufacturing assets or top-tier university talent, by doggedly correcting their flaws and experimenting with radical new methods in their factory and supply chain. After decades of kaizen, their eponymous production system was recognized as the best in the world. Described as “lean manufacturing” it is widely imitated today.

Kaizen was introduced to the popular consciousness in 1986 with the publication of Masaaki Imai’s book of the same title. This was followed by study mission to Japan to see kaizen and the Toyota Production System up close, and soon by Japanese consultants teaching these same ideas to companies in the U.S. and the world. Efforts at frontline engagement in improvement by copying elements such as Quality Circles and suggestion boxes had their day. But these efforts were rarely continuous. An early but lingering misunderstanding about kaizen resulted from the practice of these consultants demonstrating kaizen through intensive three to five-day marketing events. Within mere days, companies saw double digit improvements in productivity, inventory, quality, space, lead-time, and safety. They wanted more of this condensed, rapid improvement, and the kaizen event was popularized. Many missed the fact that the vast majority of sustainable long-term benefits from kaizen comes from the low-key approach of small daily improvements by everyone.

In practice, a kaizen is any improvement, a big one-time event or as a series of small changes. It can be done in a variety of ways, individually, with natural work groups or in project teams. What makes kaizen special is not any specific step-by-step method, format, technique, or its Japanese name. Kaizen is notably as a way of doing improvement activity based on a deeply-held set of principles. The following is a ten-point summary of these principles.

1. Combine vision with action. Although kaizen is rooted in making many small improvements day-to-day, this must be with a long-term goal in mind. This begins with defining our purpose. Who do we serve and what do we want to accomplish? What do we hear when we listen to the needs of our customers, our family, own health and well-being? What does “good” look like? We clarify a vision of an ideal state. We can’t achieve this all at once, but we can find problems or obstacles, and correct them one by one.

Action without vision is only passing time, vision without action is merely day dreaming, but vision with action can change the world. – Nelson Mandela

2. Be the tortoise and not the hare. In Aesop’s fable, the quick hare ridicules the slow tortoise. So the tortoise challenges the hare to a race. The hare dashes out ahead, looks back at the tortoise who seems to be barely moving, and takes a nap. The tortoise continues his slow and steady pace. The hare wakes from his nap to find that the tortoise has finished the race. There is nothing wrong being able to go fast when needed. The lesson is that we can win in the long run by improving a little bit every day.

3. Little strokes fell great oaks. Seemingly impossible challenges can be accomplished through the accumulation of many small efforts. Improving performance by 50% may seem impossible. However, an improvement of 1% per week results in a compounded improvement of 65% after one year. Not only do small improvements add up to big results, this process changes our brain. The focus on small changes reduces our fear.  The repetition of small successes builds our belief and confidence. This makes us more likely to continue striving in the face of challenges.

4. Quick and dirty beats delayed perfection. When we are faced with a problem, the first step is to contain it, provide relief, and ensure that it does not get worse. As customers, we appreciate a partial immediate resolution of our complaint, rather than waiting days or weeks for the promise of a complete resolution. In continuous improvement, a quick-and-dirty improvement that we can test, learn from, and decide whether to invest in and develop further, is more valuable than a perfect solution at a later date. So-called perfect solutions rarely go exactly as planned, cost more, and the delay prevents us both from gaining immediate relief and valuable learning about the problem.

5. A stitch in time saves nine. It is human nature to avoid uncomfortable discussion about problems. We hope they will go away, or that someone else will take responsibility. But when problems go unaddressed, they grow larger. A continuous improvement culture celebrates making problems visible so that they can be caught at the earliest possible moment, while they are still small.

6. Constraints inspire creativity. The Toyota Production System came to be because they had “no people, no cash, no machines” in the early days. Were it not for these constraints, Toyota would have taken the easier path of duplicating the “industry standard” manufacturing practices of the time, achieving the same wasteful methods and practices. Their constraints forced them to use their wits, not their wallet, to find creative ways to get the most out of what they had. Necessity was the mother of invention. The human mind makes better choices when it is not faced with an abundance of choices. When we have limits of time or resources, we look more carefully at the problem, think harder, and focus on what we can do with available resources. Even as we make improvements, we must set clear constraints for ourselves. The new method must be followed as the standard, or “current best way”. This allows us to continue to think creatively about how to make it easier and better. These kaizen principles are also an example of a set of constraints that help us to focus our thinking and action.

7. Go see for yourself to get the facts. Central to the kaizen approach is a focus on the gemba – the place where we can observe the real situation and get the facts. Humans are prone to opinions, jumping to conclusions, championing preferred solutions regardless of their fit to the situation. We may wish to rely on data, reports, opinion or conjecture, from the comfort of our offices. Yet we must investigate the actual situation and get the facts as early as possible whenever we engage in problem-solving or improvement activity.

8. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In order to correct a problem and prevent it from recurring, we must address the root cause. When problem-solving is not fact-based, we throw money and time at symptoms, providing temporary relief but seldom a long-term cure. Investigation root causes is only possibly by going to the point of cause, creating a blame-free environment and asking “How?” and “Why?” repeatedly until we find potential root causes to address.

9. Good process, good results. Continuous improvement is not a matter of chance. By following a good process, based on proven principles, we can deliver good results consistently. Whenever the result is not good, we can check whether we followed our plan closely, stuck to our principles. We can always improve our process, learning from our mistakes. When we fail to follow a good process, but achieve good results anyway because of fortunate circumstances, we must recognize this is not sustainable and modify our approach so that we do not rely on luck.

10. Respect for humanity. Many of these principles such as cause-and-effect, the power of small improvements compounding over time, and the benefit of faster cycles of feedback from small actions are based on laws of our universe. Like gravity, these are timeless and tested. It is not sensible to repeatedly violate these laws. Many of these principles also work with, and not against, the best parts of human nature. We must hope for and imagine a better future, but must also break our big, scary goals into small, concrete, actionable steps. Rather than tackle a large project, aim for perfection, and experience inevitable delays and frustrations, kaizen encourages us to try out a “good enough” solution, learn and build on that, gaining both confidence and knowledge. The kaizen approach insists on “go see”, recognizing that people are clever, and will arrive at solutions intuitively, become attached to their ideas, and defend them regardless of facts on the ground. We must make problems visible because humans process and respond to visual signals very well. Kaizen is as much about respecting and developing people as it is about improving processes.

More than thirty years since the concept was introduced to the West, today kaizen is widely practiced in industry, healthcare, government, banking, education, psychotherapy, personal fitness, professional sports, and more. For something that is so simple, accessible and effective it is almost surprising that kaizen has not yet become a household word, a part of daily practice for everyone. The challenge of adopting kaizen is not a technical one, but a human one. It requires that we are honest with ourselves, that we are willing to be patient, to persevere in the face of difficulties. It requires that we recognize and work to overcome parts of our human nature that assigns blame to others, jumps to conclusions, or aims for immediate perfection and becomes discouraged by failure. Kaizen is a social endeavor. We need to improve for ourselves and for others. We need others to encourage and keeps us accountable for striving toward our goals.

Within organizations, there are common challenges to the adoption of kaizen-style continuous improvement regardless of country, culture, size or type of organization. Kaizen is principle-based. Principles are mental constructs or beliefs. Therefore, continuous improvement stops when people stop believing. When leaders behave in ways that are inconsistent with their stated principles, this erodes belief. When systems or policies are put in place that violate stated principles, this erodes belief. When we say one thing and do another, we believe what we see, not what we hear. Kaizen succeeds when the its fundamental principles become not only the way we improve but the way we do everything.

  1. Martin Ulrich

    May 13, 2019 - 6:27 am

    Best article I have ever read regarding Kaizen. Jon Miller has done a fantastic job putting into words a philosophy of improvement that is natural and sustainable.

    • Jon Miller

      May 13, 2019 - 9:36 am

      Thank you Martin

  2. Sid Joynson

    May 13, 2019 - 7:14 am

    Like many other words in the TPS/Lean lexicon, I struggled long & hard to understand the real meaning of the word Kaizen. My breakthrough came from the realisation that real understanding of the meaning of a word was not to be achieved from the study of the characters & letters of the words themselves; but from studying the behaviour, attitudes & results they create.

    In Zen Buddhism the measure of a teacher is not their own knowledge of a subject, but the understanding they can give to the people they teach. From my studies & practical applications over intervening 30 years I evolved the following explanation.

    Kaizen is an overall set of attitudes, behaviours, tools & techniques.
    I have found the best way to get people to understand Kaizen, is to explain why they need to do it, & the benefit they will personally get from doing it.

    At the start of our Kaizen workshops, I draw on a flip chart pad a man walking down a road followed closely by a road roller, I write on its speed as 3mph. I then ask the delegates, if we were that man & the road roller is our competitors, how fast we need to go to avoid being flattened. The answer is faster than 3, & we normally agree 6mph will be safe. I then point out that this is no good at all.

    To explain this I ask them to turn the clock back to 1962, the year I finished my apprenticeship & manufacturing was still a major part of the British economy. The man is a company called Norton, one of the world’s finest motorcycle manufacturers employing thousands of people, & the road roller is a Japanese company called Honda. If Norton were doing 6mph, Honda was doing 1mph & was 100 miles behind Norton, & posed no threat to them.

    I then write on the chart the current year, & ask where is Norton & the rest of our motorcycle industry. All gone, & Honda is the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world. What happened? We were that good & they were that bad, but we lost and they won.

    After a suitable pause, I then make the point that success in the long term business race does not go to those moving the fastest, but those accelerating faster than everyone else in the race. It doesn’t matter if initially you are last, as the Japanese were in cars, cameras, electronics etc., as long as you improve/accelerate faster than everyone else you will win. The Japanese have a name for this acceleration/improvement process; it is Kaizen. It is their word for all the activities that continuously improve everything we do & create.

    The next part is to get delegates to understand the inclusive nature of the Kaizen process. I do this by asking the delegates what percentage of our people need to be involved in our improvement/Kaizen activities to achieves the maximum improvement/acceleration rate, & everyone agrees 100%. I then explain that the another element of Kaizen is to have a continuous stream of small ideas from all our people that will combine to have a major impact on our overall business performance

    To help delegates understand the focus for our kaizen activities, I ask them when they are customers themselves, what they would expect from any product (P) & service (S) they purchased and what experiences (E) they would expect to enjoy in the process. The answer is always, Q.C.D.D

    Quality. The Best (appropriate). Cost. The Lowest. (best value)
    Delivery. The Fastest and on time.

    And be giving them ‘Delightful Experiences’ in all their direct & indirect contacts with the supplying organisation’s products, services and people.

    These measures (P.S.E and Q.C.D.D*) must drive all the different elements of our Kaizen activities. Our future success is guaranteed if we can continuously improve these values faster than any existing or future competitor.

    Kaizen must also be focused on making everyone’s job;
    Secure – Easier—Faster—Safer and more Fun/enjoyable
    Kaizen is about continuously achieving all of goals*.
    The practice of Kaizen is also includes activities that will avoid losing the improvements gained.

    I have learnt two fundamental rules of Kaizen from my study & practice of TPS/Kaizen in Japan (20 visits) & with our European clients (1700 workshops). They did not receive sufficient attention when TPS was translated into Lean thinking. This could explain the difference between Japanese & some Western academic interpretations of Kaizen.

    Those rules are;

    1) Can we remove it before we improve it? We should not be improving activities and things that should not exist. This is waste elimination – waste being all items and activities that do not contribute directly to producing the P, S and E that will delight the customer. What cannot be removes should then be the focus of our improvement activities. This is often lost in the complexity of VSM..

    2) Maintain the gains, sustain the change. I speak from personal experience when I say this can be a challenge to the western mind, unfamiliar with the concept of Yin and Yang thinking. Once we have secured the improvement and ensured there will be no deterioration (YANG-Rigid thinking to standards); we can press on with the continuous improvement process (YIN – Flexible thinking). It took me many years to get comfortable with this Yang-Yin idea.
    This second rule is essential to rigidly maintaining the improved situations and flexibly continuing our improvement activities.

    To truly understand Kaizen, I think it helps to remember the words of Archimedes; “Give me a leaver long enough and I can lift the world.” Our people’s combined abilities are the lever to raise our organisation’s performance to world class levels & keep it there. Kaizen is a focus for its application. To use only managers and a few specialists to do all the lifting is absurd and is doomed to fail.

    In the final analysis Kaizen is about engaging the abilities of all our people to create;
    An organisation that can compete successfully (physically and financially) in the global market now and in the future. They must also be secure, challenging, fulfilling, and enjoyable/fun places to work.


    • Jon Miller

      May 13, 2019 - 2:24 pm

      Hello Sid

      Thanks for your excellent contribution.


  3. Simon Wooldridge

    May 14, 2019 - 2:57 am

    Outstanding article, this is what kaizen is all about, rather than the diluted efforts of the masses.

  4. Michael Grogan

    May 16, 2019 - 11:43 pm

    100% AGREE -Best article I have ever read about Kaizen- succinct and to the point – a wonderful piece of work – i will share this with my students and clients here in the Philippines as a study guide – thank you Jon
    ps. minor improvement opportunity – the Nelson Mandella quote was beautiful on point #1 – why not add a fitting quote for the remaining 9 points 🙂

  5. Michael Grogan

    May 17, 2019 - 12:27 am

    Suggestions for quotes to add
    2. “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” –Confucius
    3. “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. That’s the only way it happens — and when it happens, it lasts.” 
    — John Wooden
    4. “Perfection is the Enemy of Progress!” Winston Churchill
    5. “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.” — Taiichi Ohno
    6. “Do not conform to the thinking of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”— The Apostle Paul
    7. “Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” – Asian Proverb
    8. “In God we trust; all others bring data.” —W. Edwards Deming
    9. “A bad system will beat a good person every time .’ — W. Edwards Deming
    10. “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.” Harvey Samuel Firestone

    “The Kaizen Philosophy assumes that our way of life — be it our working life, our social life, or our home life — deserves to be constantly improved.” — Masaaki Imai

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