What is kaizen? The Process of Continuous Improvement

“There are no big problems – there are just a lot of little problems.” By Henry Ford.

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“There are no big problems – there are just a lot of little problems.” By Henry Ford.

kaizen is translated into English as “continuous improvement” or “self-improvement” but in Western civilization it also encompasses the concept of a quality management method well known in the world of the industry.

That is why Kaizen is a process of continuous improvement based on concrete, simple and inexpensive actions that involve all workers in a company, from managers to workers. A change of attitude in the worker and also in the company, both definitions point to different edges but at no time lose their connection, the one can not exist without the other, something similar to the Taoist philosophy that establishes the Yin and Yang.

The Sino-Japanese word kaizen is the reading of the Kanji characters, whose meaning can be broken down like this:

改 (kai in Japanese, gǎi in Chinese) means ‘change’ or ‘the action to amend’.

善 (zen in Japanese, shàn in Chinese) means ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’.

“Beneficial” is more related to the Taoism or Buddhist philosophy than to the definition of a common benefit of society and not of individual interests. In other words, one person can not benefit at the expense of another. The benefit that concerns this concept must be sustainable. Zen or Shan is a term that reflects a truly altruistic act that benefits others.

The word kaizen refers to any change for the better, whether large or small, punctual or continuous, similar to the word “improvement” in Spanish. In particular, the word kaizen in Japanese does not incorporate anything that connotes a continuous, and not punctual, process of improvement.

In order to distinguish the two meanings of the term kaizen in Japanese (on the one hand, the traditional meaning of “improvement”, on the other, the more internationalized meaning of “method of continuous improvement”), the second is usually written with the katakana characters カ イ ゼ ン, devoid of the semantic value of kanji.

The actual definition of Kaizen is more personal, and occurs within the mind itself for the Japanese. Kaizen could be better translated as “continuous self-development.” in Japan a clear distinction between the two concepts: improvement and self-development. Thus, even in North America, Toyota employees often say “Kaizen” in their original Japanese, instead of trying to translate it into English.

Some history

In Japan during the 1950s, the occupation of US military forces brought experts in statistical methods of process quality control who were familiar with training programs called TWI (Training Within Industry), whose purpose was to provide consulting services to the industries related to the War.

TWI programs during the postwar period became instruction to the Japanese civil industry, in terms of work methods (statistical process control). This methodological knowledge was imparted by William Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran; and they were very easily assimilated by the Japanese. This is how the emotional intelligence of the Orientals was found (the millenary philosophy of overcoming), and the rational intelligence of the Westerners and gave rise to what is now known as the Kaizen quality improvement strategy. The application of this strategy to its industry led the country to be among the world’s leading economies.

Kaoru Ishikawa returned to this concept to define how continuous improvement or Kaizen, can be applied to the processes, as long as all the variables of the process are known.

Application of kaizen

This philosophical concept, an element of the cultural heritage of Japan, is put into practice and not only aims to both the company and the people who work in it are well today, but the company is driven with organizational tools to search always better results.

Starting from the principle that time is the best isolated indicator of competitiveness, it acts in an optimum degree by recognizing and eliminating waste in the company, either in existing production processes or in the project phase, of new products, machine maintenance or even of administrative procedures.

Its methodology brings concrete results, both qualitative and quantitative, in a relatively short time and at a low cost supported by the synergy generated by the teamwork of the structure formed to achieve the goals established by the address of the company.

Kaizen as a tool is part of what is called the production system and is complementary to tools such as standardization, 5s and TPM, amongst others. There are production systems that can be adapted to any organization, like the monozukuri-genba, in this the Kaizen is considered part of the level of maturity. There are many types of Kaizen, among the most common are:

  • Quality circles (kaizen groups).
  • Kaizen 2 days 2 hours (kaizen Nissan).
  • Karakuri kaizen.
  • Teian kaizen.
  • Kaizen kobetsu.

Its application will depend on the need and maturity of each company. For example, Kaizen groups consisting of 5 people and an advisor are primarily aimed at human development and have as additional results improvements in indicators of quality, productivity or safety and ergonomics, but you should never lose sight of the fact that their main function is the development of the worker; this is why in mature companies the office that Kaizen leads belongs to the human resources area.

Definition of the problem

Recognition of the Characteristics of the Problem (Observation).
2Search for the main causes (Analysis).
Actions to eliminate the causes (Action).
Confirmation of the effectiveness of the action (Verification).
Permanent elimination of causes (Standardization).
Review of activities and future work planning.

As you can see, it is very similar to the PDCA technique which is used to improve processes. There are plenty of techniques which are logic-based with different names but with the same objective.