Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning continuous improvement to create more value and eliminate waste. Ideally, it engages every employee in a never-ending pursuit of perfection. By making incremental improvements organizations can improve productivity and gain competitive advantage.

Continuous improvement is about questioning the status quo by repeatedly asking “What is the ideal condition?” Firstly, leaders must 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 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 continuous improvement, management must first establish a stable operating condition. In other words, machines are working, workers are present, jobs are repeatable with quality, and material is available. This is because without a stable operation teams perform kaizen on top of chaos. Consequently, gains rapidly vanish.

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

Kaizen and standardized work are 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 such as names, responsibilities, dates, and expected outcomes.
  7. Check resultsa vital part of this routine, since improvement requires the demonstration of an improved state. Importantly, 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.
The 8 steps for type 3 problem-solving or kaizen.

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 the event, 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 analyzes, implements, tests, and standardizes a new cell. The basic steps of such an event are:

  1. Participants learn continuous flow principles.
  2. They go to gemba to assess actual conditions and plan the cell.
  3. They take action to move machines and test the new cell.
  4. The team standardizes the process and reports out to senior management. 

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

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.

Watch an Example Kaizen Event

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 continuous improvement is not just about improving productivity but respecting people.

Examples across Industries

Articles and Books

  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?
  6. Kaizen Express — John Shook and Toshiko Narusawa
A chart showing the relationship between system kaizen, process kaizen, and management.