Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning continuous improvement to create more value with less waste. Ideally, it entails the engagement of every employee in the never-ending pursuit of better, on the way to perfection. By making incremental improvements organizations can improve productivity and achieve competitive success.

Kaizen is about questioning the status quo. and asks, What is the ideal or should-be condition? Leaders must first envision a target condition to achieve. And to achieve the full potential of kaizen, leaders must unlock the creativity of their workers.

There are two levels of kaizen:

  1. System or flow kaizen focusing on the overall value stream. This is for management.
  2. Process kaizen focusing on individual processes. This is for work teams and team leaders.

Value-stream mapping is an excellent tool for identifying an entire value stream and determining where flow and process kaizen are appropriate.

Some examples of target setting for kaizen across industries are:

  • Construction — eliminate 100% of safety incidents at job sites
  • Healthcare — reduce time to discharge patients from hospital by 50%
  • Hospitality — serve the first course within 10 minutes of seating a table
  • Manufacturing — achieve 100% on-time delivery
  • Software — ship application updates with 0 bugs

Kaizen is for doing and learning. You get rapid gains and it will improve your culture.

Art Byrne, former CEO of Wiremold

The Relationship between Kaizen and Standardized Work

The creator of the Toyota Production System Taiichi Ohno once said, “There can be no kaizen without a standard.”

Importantly, before engaging in kaizen, management must first establish a stable operating condition. This means machines are working, workers are present, jobs are repeatable with quality, and material is available. Without a stable operation leaders are at risk of performing kaizen on top of chaos, whereby gains rapidly vanish.

Assuming a stable operating condition, leaders should first develop standardized work to create a baseline for improvement. Leaders then can set targets against this baseline. Once a team achieves a measurable gain, they should update the standard to reflect the new method of working. Critically, this ensures gains do not disappear.

Kaizen and standardized work are inextricably linked as John Shook explains in the article “Standardized Work or Kaizen? Yes”.

Eight Steps for Kaizen

  1. Background—lists the relevant information the audience and participants would need to know.
  2. Current-state definition—depicts the situation in a graphical, visual manner for the audience to see, e.g., value-stream maps.
  3. Current-state analysis—various factors, e.g., lead time, service, performance, cost, features, etc., are collectively examined for improvement potential.
  4. Goals—lists what is to be accomplished by when and specifies the levels of improvement to be obtained.
  5. Target-condition definition—often included as a visual representation for what the new improved state should look like. This can be a visual image, a flow chart, data, or a comparative look at the desired target condition.
  6. Implementation plan—there is often substantial work to be done. List the high-level details, e.g., names, responsibilities, dates, expected outcomes, etc. (Specific details can be managed in a separate project plan as needed.)
  7. Check resultsa vital part of this routine, since improvement requires the demonstration of an improved state. Instead of returning to a standard or eliminating a problem as with Type 2, you are checking to see whether a new level of performance has been achieved.
  8. Follow up and standardize—list of actions must be taken to ensure results are sustained in the long run.

Smalley, Art. 2018. Four Types of Problems: from reactive troubleshooting to creative innovation. Cambridge: Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.

Kaizen Events

A kaizen event (aka “kaizen blitz” or “kaizen workshop”) commonly last five days, during which a team identifies and implements a significant improvement in a process. 

A common example is creating a continuous flow cell within a week. To do this a kaizen team—including staff experts and consultants as well as operators and line managers—analyzes, implements, tests, and standardizes a new cell. Participants first learn continuous flow principles and then go to the gemba to assess actual conditions and plan the cell. Then, they take action to move machines and test the new cell. Subsequently, after improvements, the team standardizes the process and reports out to senior management. 

While kaizen events can be excellent activities for developing capability and making substantial changes rapidly, leaders should not solely rely on them. This is because steady improvement through daily kaizen forces management to develop frontline problem-solving capability, which over time produces better business performance. 

A five-day kaizen event schedule

Some failure modes of kaizen events include: 

  • The critical KPI becomes the number of kaizen events held versus meaningful metrics (e.g. safety, cost, quality, delivery). 
  • Gains made during the event are rapidly lost, as workers and managers return to the previous way or working. 
  • Management does not involve frontline workers in the event.
  • Specialized engineers typically removed from day-to-day operations lead improvement versus frontline management and operators.

Take a Lean Eye Test: See and Improve Work

Watch a short video of an assembly job and try to identify opportunities for improvement. See if your ideas match the final outcome and examine how kaizen is not just about improving productivity but respecting people.

Examples across Industries

Manufacturing Thrustmaster Comes Around
HealthcareView from the Hospital Floor: How to Build a Culture of Improvement One Unit at a Time
HospitalityA Radical Redesign to Making Crudito
ConstructionRespect for People: Making the Job Easier for Workers
AgricultureTending the Roots of Lean with Lean Farmer Ben Hartman
AdministrationLean Thinking Helps City of Chula Vista with Budget Crunch
SoftwareDoubling the Number of Performant Apps Using Kaizen

Top 5 Articles

  1. Cardboard, Duct Tape, and String: The Do-First Mindset – Mark Reich 
  2. The Hard Work of Making Hard Work Easier  – Mark Reich 
  3. What Did I Transform Today? — Josh Howell  
  4. Michikazu Tanaka of Daihatsu on “What I Learned from Taiichi Ohno” – John Shook 
  5. Ask Art: Aren’t You a Little “Old School” in Your Kaizen Approach To Implementing Lean Thinking?

A chart showing the relationship between system kaizen, process kaizen, and management.