What is Kaizen? | Definition & Benefits

Discover how to implement continuous improvement within your organization with the kaizen method. Find out about the benefits your business could reap!

Définition: Kaizen

Kaizen is a Japanese term formed by two words: kai and zen, which respectively mean ‘’change’’ and ‘’better’’. It is a philosophy used in the corporate sphere that refers to a process of continuous improvement based on concrete actions.

It’s a management method that involves all the members of an organization, from lower-level workers to managers, and whose objective is to optimize the productivity and competitiveness of a business through small consecutive steps in order to improve products, services and systems.

The philosophy of the kaizen method is based on teamwork and immediate changes. For this method to be effective, the various levels of an organization must be aligned behind the same objective and must be willing to establish the necessary modifications at the moment, since they are simple, concrete and inexpensive actions.

It is important to underline that kaizen considers time as a strategic and scarce resource that should not be wasted. This resource is valuable to all businesses, regardless of their size. That is why, for a continuous improvement process, it is essential to control time accurately to get the most out of it.

The five ‘’S’’ of the Kaizen method

The kaizen method is based on the constant evolution of the processes that make up the business production system, establishing certain quality standards and constantly measuring the achievements obtained. In this way, continuous improvement is ensured. For the execution of this method different elements come into play, which are known as the 5S:

  1. Seiri, can be translated as “sorting”. It’s important for everything in the work area to have its place and purpose. Organization is key so you have to keep the necessary items and dispose or store unneeded ones.
  2. Seiton, means "systemic arrangement". It indicates that everything should have a place and be in its optimal place. The place of each item should be labeled or clearly indicated and items should be organized in a certain way that optimizes workflow. For example, the equipment or tools that are used more often should be easily accessible and workers shouldn’t have to run back and forth constantly to get materials.
  3. Seiso is synonymous with “cleanliness”. It indicates that everything should be cleaned and inspected on a regular basis to realize efficiency gains and maintain a safe work environment.
  4. Seiketsu means "standardization". This promotes the standardization of the first 3S’s.It requires the establishment of procedures and schedules. All the workstations for a specific job should be identical. Employees that perform the same job should be able to perform the required tasks at any station because they should each have the same tools and those should all be in the same location.
  5. Shitsuke, is equivalent to "sustaining." This highlights the fact that once the 4 S’s have been established, workers should be able to ‘’do without being told’’ in order to maintain this new way of operating. To promote this, managers should organize regular training sessions and perform audits.

The effect of continuous improvement (Kaizen) leads to less waste, better quality and faster lead times. To translate the principles of kaizen, it is essential to develop the capacity for analysis, encourage motivation and evaluate the outcome of decisions. The idea is that kaizen becomes a philosophy of work and even life adopted by all the members that make up the structure.

In order to achieve the success of the kaizen method, it is essential to promote teamwork and managerial leadership. Likewise, it is necessary to train, promote innovative thinking, control workflows and, of course, share and highlight the process improvements that are being achieved.

How to apply the kaizen method?

1. Select an area of improvement and define objectives

First, the managerial team has to pick an area to improve. Possibilities include productivity, quality control, safety, etc. It’s important to clearly define objectives so that they are aligned with the company’s mission and involve all stakeholders.

2. Create a work team

You must then create a multidisciplinary team, which is made up of people from different departments, so that they can all share their knowledge and experience regarding a specific process. It is recommended that each group have a leader, who is responsible for coordinating the meetings and reporting on progress.

3. Gemba Walk

Gemba or gemba walk is a Japanese word that means ‘’the real place’’. In manufacturing, gemba is the factory floor but in other industries gemba can be any site where value is created (construction site, retail sales floor, etc.). Gemba is at the core of the Toyota production system, which is known as Lean Manufacturing.

A gemba walk consists of going to the place where the real work happens to observe different processes and ask questions in order to identify opportunities of improvement and leverage a continuous-improvement culture. Gemba walks are used by a wide range of companies across the globe to gain valuable insights on their supply chain, eliminate waste and improve productivity.

How to do a gemba walk?

4. Collect and analyze data

Once you’ve identified areas of improvement and started implementing changes, it’s important to collect data in order to analyze performance and determine if there are incremental improvements or issues to fix. The Gemba Walk App is a cloud-based technological tool that digitizes your gemba walk so that you can get real-time insights and extract data from your observations in order to improve work processes quickly and efficiently.

5. Make an action plan

Once you’ve analyzed the data and identified critical problems that should be fixed in order to improve the company’s processes, make sure to create an action plan. This will help you establish the next actions that should be implemented, set deadlines for each step and assign each action to the appropriate person or team for its execution.

6. Track and evaluate the results

Once the necessary actions have been implemented, your team should track the results and see if the projections match the actual outcome. If the issues identified were not fixed with the action plan in place, the strategy will have to be reviewed.

7. Standardization and expansion

After a certain period, the changes that were implemented concerning the issues detected should have yielded positive results. If so, the process should be standardized and replicated in other areas where possible. Your company can then start the kaizen method again by focusing on a new area of improvement (security, quality control, etc.) and so on.

Advantages of the Kaizen method

The application of this method offers several advantages:

  • High increases in productivity
  • Decrease in the number of accidents (increased safety)
  • Lower levels of waste (reduced environmental impact)
  • Increase in customer satisfaction
  • Increase in inventory turnover levels
  • Lower employee turnover
  • Improvement in cash flows
  • Increase in profitability
  • Significant cost reductions
  • Increase in staff motivation
  • Lower response times
  • Reduction in equipment and tool failures
  • Improved design and operation of products and services
  • Lower error and failure levels
  • Strategic competitive advantage
  • Increase in quality (product or service)
  • Greater ability to adapt to market changes (social, cultural, economical, political, etc.)
  • Ability to expand operations and compete in globalized markets
  • Greater managerial leadership

Want to implement continuous improvement within your organization?

Our Gemba Walk solution helps hundreds of businesses identify problems in different areas such as production, safety, business processes, work areas and more. Our lean management app helps you create custom checklists, organize your gemba walk, document issues (pictures, videos, notes, checklists, etc.), establish follow-up actions and integrate insights into your time and task management tools. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or would like to have more information regarding our services.