Creating a Kaizen Culture – Continuous Improvement Awaits

In our previous discussions about Lean, we’ve described how the continuous improvement model and principles behind Lean. In this article we’ll explore Kaizen, another concept widely used to root out waste and inefficiencies. The unique characteristic of Kaizen is it places a strong emphasis on empowering the rank and file worker to take action to make suggestions to eliminate a problematic practice or waste, sometimes right away.

Literally translated, Kaizen is the Japanese word for “change for the better” and “improvement.” Interestingly, unlike Lean, Kaizen had its origins in the U.S. where it was originally developed as a work improvement approach called “small-step.”

The Kaizen Approach

As with Lean and Six Sigma, Kaizens’ effectiveness is dependent on how well it is implemented, the degree to which management is supportive of using it, and the willingness of employees to adapt to the change it brings. Most adherents of Kaizen agree that it is virtually synonymous with Lean, but differs in the immediacy of its application and the deference or respect it bestows upon the worker.

To discover and solve problems, Kaizen is useful for analyzing why an unacceptable condition or result exists and what circumstances led to the poor outcome. This “value stream mapping” documents the cause and effect of issues. This is also called the “5 whys.” Each answer to the series of questions should expose the flaws which collectively added up to the objectionable end result.

Start by identifying the problem:

To try out Kaizen in your organization, with or without the benefit of an MRP or ERP system, begin with the known issue you want to remediate. Don’t make assumptions as to what potential solutions may emerge or which tools might be used to create the solution. Let the process unfold spontaneously.

With team members at the ready, announce that a Kaizen Event will be held. This is usually a five-day workshop comprised of successive sessions. Don’t worry – it is not a series of all-day meetings which will take production offline and cost hundreds of hours of employee time!

The purpose of the Kaizen Event is to table the process or challenge in question, analyze it, and formulate a solution.

Although the event is led by a team leader, all stakeholders have equal involvement and there is no hierarchy within the context of the series of discussions. The role of the team leader is to keep the initiative on schedule and document the input made.

Roles, Structure, and Purpose

How a Kaizen event is facilitated is crucial to its successful implementation. Thorough planning and organizing in advance will make it clear there is firm resolve behind the effort. Begin by creating your Kaizen event profile:

Event Description: Describe the intended scope of the project (in plain English)

Preliminary Objectives: State specific and achievable objectives relevant to the one known issue or problem

Production Requirements (Takt time): Calculation of total available production time divided by average customer demand (Refer to our earlier article ‘Have you checked your production line for inefficiencies?’ For more detail)

Process Information: Images (with flow diagram) showing the current state of the process

Event Dates: Days, times and location of the meetings

Team Members: Names and titles of each participant

Consultant: Name and bio of a process improvement specialist if an outsider will be included
Current Situation and Problem: Highly specific description of the challenge and relevant statistics, data, wastes, or costs associated with the process being evaluated

For the ongoing tracking of the input from participants, progress made, and details about the production line, output, components, and costs, it’s suggested to use hardcopy work forms. Kaizen events can include a wide variety such as workshop target, time observation, task/process time, wastes identified, progress report, KPIs, capacity/load planning, etc. It’s not recommended you create these templates yourself. An online search will provide a selection of Kaizen event workflows, forms, checklists, reports, and toolkits for you to consider using, all downloadable or free to cut and paste into MS Word.

Implementing the Outcome

If the analysis conducted during the event identifies a problem and a proposed solution, it’s time to move ahead with implementation. With the plans and metrics agreed upon by the stakeholders in hand, a path forward is chosen. Before doing so, standardization must be in place to measure the process to determine if it has a positive or negative effect.

The team members identified within the Kaizen charter are called upon to create an agenda to capture and distribute the logistics relevant to the solution chosen. Clearly defined ground rules must be established with regard to what issue the group is trying to solve. Equal transparency must be given to how the solution will be implemented. As these efforts move forward, a report of findings that may lead to a solution must be tabled. This document is provided to management to review which provides an opportunity for changes to the recommendations be made.

If it is decided that the process steps, physical arrangements, and other factors be adopted as prescribed, implementation can begin. On the other hand, if further review or alterations to the documents and proposals arise, management can make updated proposals available to the Kaizen members.

At this point a process for sustaining the new initiatives must be made and everyone involved should be reconvened. In keeping with the continuous improvement nature of Kaizen, a re-visiting of the event shouldn’t be viewed as a failure, but rather evidence that ongoing engagement from stakeholders will inevitably result in a better outcome.

Lasting Benefits of Kaizen

Just as the use of Lean and Six Sigma aligns organizations by optimizing resources to deliver greater value to customers, Kaizen provides its own competitive advantages.

Mixing Kaizen in with an existing methodologies creates further value from having a “Kaizen culture” within your organization. For starters, by facilitating these ongoing events you are sending a clear signal to your team that their insights, productivity, and desire to be more accountable are valued. Also, as it has been found in multiple studies of employee-owned companies or those with ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans), employees with ‘skin in the game’ feel more vested and the payoff is greater productivity, higher profitability, and increased revenue.

As mentioned previously, it is imperative that hierarchy does not get in the way of ideas coming forward and being expanded upon. Workers on the shop floor, production line, and in various departments are given a voice with Kaizen and can offer a vitally important perspective on a negative function or feature within a process. This is why Kaizen culture can tangibly improve job satisfaction and reduce employee turnover. Involving everyone on your team in the continuous improvement of processes creates a lasting, positive impact on the business. Kaizen has also been credited with promoting better, more meaningful communication across all departments and tiers of an organization.

If you’d like to explore holding a Kaizen event within your organization, join us for our upcoming live event: ‘The Value of a Business Process Assessment’. Register here. 

Our Lean specialists have deep understanding in identifying waste and inefficiencies in processes, and over 30 years of implementation experience. Over the years we’ve implemented customized ERP and MRP solutions for hundreds of companies in a wide spectrum of industries.