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.