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Who, what or where is ‘Kaizen’?

A few months ago I blogged about Continuous Improvement and the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. These are excellent principles, but I am often asked how you put them in place; what do you actually do in the workplace to achieve Continuous Improvement?

Well, I particularly like to use the Japanese methodology of ‘Kaizen’, which translates as simply ‘Improvement’.

Kaizen is an organic, grass-roots type of change process in which individuals or small working groups make small, frequent, beneficial improvements in their own day-to-day area of activity because they want to and because they know it will help themselves and the company. Over time these small improvements all add up and make a huge difference.

Kaizen is the opposite of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It aims to improve all areas of the business whether they are broken or not. It is more of a working philosophy than a ‘try once, then abandon’ initiative and is so quick and easy to do, and the results can be so immediate, that it becomes part of your culture.

As with many of the best ideas, Kaizen is deceptively simple, often to the point of people saying “there’s nothing special about it” or “we already do something like it”. Think again! Its strength is in its simplicity and effectiveness; done properly it can bring surprising benefits surprisingly quickly and cheaply.

So what do you need in order to implement Kaizen?

  • The single most important thing, as with so much of quality management, is to get unequivocal commitment from top management. Although Kaizen is implemented from the grass roots of the company, your business leaders must fully and enthusiastically back it, not merely tolerate it; without this you are sunk. Get them to participate in the Kaizen process and lead by example
  • Appoint a Kaizen champion to drive it forward; again, this person must have top management’s overt backing and confidence
  • Set up a simple, low-bureaucracy Kaizen process (see below)
  • Train your staff in the technique, then start the process rolling
  • Make it become part of the way you do business, and make the process itself subject to Continuous Improvement.

A typical process will follow the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle and will look something like this:

  • A single employee, or a small group, has regular short Kaizen sessions in which they identify a weakness or an opportunity for reducing waste or making another improvement in their part of the business, however small and simple
  • The employee or group develops their best idea for how to make an improvement and discusses this with their line manager
  • The line manager reviews the idea (quickly; ideally the same day) and encourages immediate action – this is important as you will squash all enthusiasm if the feedback is delayed or unduly negative
  • The employee or group implements the idea; if it takes more effort than they can provide then they lead a team to implement it
  • The employee or group monitors the implementation and checks that it really achieves the planned improvement; if not they generate and implement more ideas
  • The employee or group writes up the idea and result in a simple summary format (only takes five minutes) and the line manager or Kaizen champion publicises this to recognise the achievement and encourage others.

You may need a small time or materials budget, but the nature of Kaizen is that it usually really is small and the benefits pay it back many time over.

The changes in processes, methodologies, tools, or environment should be permanent – you want the benefits to stick and not be easily reversed.

You will need to keep Kaizen going and not let it die through neglect after a few weeks of initial enthusiasm. The Kaizen process should therefore be integrated into your normal working life – build it into your supervision processes and your staff appraisals: “How many ideas have you generated and implemented? How do we help you generate more?”, build Kaizen sessions into your team meetings or briefings, maybe have a standard weekly half-hour ‘Kaizen slot’, etc.

Finally, bear in mind that Kaizen is all about getting small improvements quickly and easily. To counter the cynics make sure that lots of ideas are generated, make sure they get acted on immediately, and keep people fully informed about the process.

When people see how useful it can be they will join in and you will end up with a better business.

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