Continuous improvement with Kaizen

The Kaizen method is a frequently used proces improvement method. This Japanese method is based on continuous change and improvement. It bears some resemblance to the PDCA cycle in that sense. What steps should you take? What are the five pillars of Kaizen? And, most importantly, how do you successfully implement Kaizen in your organization?

What does Kaizen mean?

Kaizen is more than a methodology, it’s a philosophy. Kaizen literally means “change” (kai) to “become good” (zen) – changing for the better. Another definition of the Japanese use of Kaizen is ‘take it apart and put it back together, better.” Usually this is a process, a system, a product, or a service.

The five pillars of Kaizen

Kaizen is based on five fundamental elements:

  1. Teamwork that embodies the essence of “Team”
  2. Personal discipline
  3. Better morale
  4. Quality circles
  5. Suggestions for improvement

Team in this context can be taken to mean “Together, Everyone Achieves More”. A team is people working together towards a common goal. The most important factors in this are communication, agreements, rhythm (structured discussions), process evaluation, feedback and feedforward.

The six Kaizen steps

Kaizen’s continuous improvement process has six steps (DMAGIC). These steps are about mapping unnecessary waste, inflexibility, and fluctuations in the process.

  1. Define the problem and the goal using a problem definition worksheet.
  2. Measure the facts, where gut feeling is supplemented with hard facts and data.
  3. Analyze the facts, for example using an Iskikawa diagram. This is also called a cause and effect diagram or a fishbone diagram. You’ll also use the 5 Why questions.
  4. Generate, categorize, and prioritize improvements. Choose the solution based on an Effort/Impact matrix, for example.
  5. Implement the changes and keep an eye on the progress.
  6. Check and secure by standardizing.

The 5-S framework

The Kaizen method is all about “cleaning” processes and making them neat and orderly. The 5-S framework provides several principles to achieve that. They stand for:

  1. Separating or sorting (Seiri)
  2. Set in order (Seiton)
  3. Shine (Seiso)
  4. Standardize (Seiketsu)
  5. Sustain / Self-discipline (Shitsuke)

The impact of Kaizen

What does it mean, concretely, to eliminate waste and errors in processes? When it comes to handling process errors, waste, inflexibility, and variance play a huge role. It’s important to turn this concept into tangible effects.

  1. Eliminate waste (muda): higher consistent quality at lower costs. For example, customers getting flawless invoices every time.
  2. Less inflexibility (muri): delivering the right amount at the right time (just in time delivery). For example, deploying employees in a flexible way to adjust to changing customer demands.
  3. Less variance (mura): more reliable and predictable process. For example, standards and process lead times and quality being known and identical. The same thing for different people, products, or methods.

Kaizen, and especially the focus on reducing waste, inflexibility, and variance, drive change in the areas of quality management, lead time, productivity, and attitudes and behavior. These changes lead to measurable improvements when it comes to customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and profitability.

The 12 Kaizen sources of waste

Just like Lean, Kaizen is focused on eliminating waste. There are 7 traditional and 5 modern sources of waste:

  • over-production
  • waiting
  • extra-processing
  • transportation
  • mistakes or defects
  • (work) inventory
  • unnecessary (search) actions
  • wrong products
  • underused talent
  • unused systems
  • energy & water
  • material waste

Start using Kaizen

Kaizen is used when (re)designing business processes and implementing improvement processes. We help organizations with that improvement process by offering advice, interim specialists, and training courses. During these training courses, you’ll learn how Lean, PDCA, and Kaizen can work for you and how you can apply continuous improvement.

Improve with Kaizen and PDCA

Are you curious about our data-driven Kaizen approach? Feel free to contact us for a conversation with one of our Kaizen experts / facilitators. We’d love to help you advance.

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Daan van Beek, Kaizen expert


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