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What is Kaizen?
Production planning
6 min read

What is Kaizen?

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over thirty years since Masaaki Imai wrote his game-changing book, Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success.


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Because of this book, the term Kaizen, which roughly translates to “continuous improvement,” has been used as a competitive strategy by organizations in Japan and throughout the western world.

Today, Kaizen is recognized around the world as an approach to establishing continuous improvement based on incremental and ongoing positive changes that can result in significant improvements.

“Kaizen is an everyday improvement, everybody improvement, everywhere improvement, and the message of the Kaizen strategy is that not a day should go by without some kind of improvement being made somewhere in the company.”                                                                                    

Masaaki Imai

Kaizen requires the right mindset

Executing Kaizen is dependent on having the proper attitude throughout the organization. Here are ten principles that address the Kaizen mindset. They are typically referred to as its core principles:

  1. Let go of all assumptions
  2. Take the initiative in solving problems
  3. Don’t accept the status quo
  4. Abandon perfectionism and replace it with an attitude of adaptive change
  5. Look for solutions as soon as you find mistakes
  6. Foster an environment in which everyone feels inspired to contribute
  7. Instead of accepting the apparent issue, ask “why?” five times to discover the root cause
  8. Gather information and opinions from multiple people
  9. Use creativity to find low-cost, small improvements
  10. Never stop improving

How does Kaizen work?

First of all, Kaizen is based on the principle that everything can be improved and nothing is status quo. Second, it upholds the philosophy of respect for people, one of the guiding principles of the Toyota Way, which was initially developed for manufacturing automobiles.

Kaizen is about identifying problems and opportunities and then coming up with solutions and applying them.  Later, these solutions are cycled through the process once again, looking for issues that had not been addressed thoroughly.

These following seven steps comprise a cycle for continuous improvement. They create a systematic method for executing the process:

  1. Get workers involved: Get all employees onboard by asking for their help in identifying issues and problems. Their participation up front allows them to feel as if they are a part of any future changes. In many organizations, specific groups of workers are assigned to gather and convey information from a broader group of employees.
  2. Make a list of issues: Using extensive feedback from all workers, compile a list of problems. If the list is long, narrow it down to a shortlist.
  3. Find a solution: Encourage everyone to propose creative solutions, and ensure that all ideas are considered. Then, choose an acceptable answer from the ideas that were offered.
  4. Put the solution to the test: Apply the winning solution, with everyone participating in the rollout. Initiate a pilot study and take other small steps to test out the solution.
  5. Analyze the results:  Find out how successful the change has been by checking the progress of the study at specific intervals. Be sure to keep workers on the shop floor engaged in the analysis.
  6. Standardize: If the analysis yields positive results, adopt the solution throughout the company.
  7. Repeat: Repeat these steps regularly when new solutions are tested or new problems are confronted.

Kaizen works hand-in-hand with respect for people

Kaizen is one of the two guiding principles of the Toyota Way, typically called “lean manufacturing,” which was developed to assist Japan in recovering economically after World War II. The other component, Respect for People, means just what it implies: It’s designed to promote a culture in which both individual creativity and teamwork are valued.

According to Toyota, Respect for People is made up of two components – respect and teamwork. Here’s how the company describes them:

Respect: “We respect others, make every effort to understand each other, take responsibility, and do our best to build mutual trust.”

Teamwork: “We stimulate personal and professional growth, share the opportunities of development, and maximize individual and team performance.”

What is a 5S program?

You have likely heard of 5S in conjunction with Kaizen, but maybe you weren’t sure what it meant. Well, 5S is the foundation of all continuous improvements, and it’s the vital component of establishing a Visual Workplace.

A 5 S program emphasizes organization, cleanliness, visual order, and standardization. After it is initiated, companies can expect higher profits, better efficiency, improved service, and a safer work environment as benefits of the 5S program. Here are the components:

  • Seiri is the Japanese word for sort. Employees should be sorting out and organizing their workplace, removing all unnecessary items and setting aside anything that isn’t needed right now. Critical items are kept in a safe place.
  • Seiton means to set in order. Studies show that workers spend half their time looking for items and important documents. By creating a specific location for everything, less time will be wasted searching for them.
  • Seiso translates into shine. In this context, it means the workplace should be kept clean and individual workstations clutter-free. Documents are kept in folders and files, while tools and other items are stored in cabinets and drawers.
  • Seiketsu refers to standardization. Organizations need to incorporate certain standard rules and best practices to ensure the highest quality.
  • Shitsuke is the essential self-discipline that keeps organizations from slipping back into their former ways. It instills a sense of pride and respect for the company.

Employing the Five S of Kaizen allows for a systematic approach to reliable systems, standard policies, and rules that result in healthy work culture.

You may also like How Manufacturing ERP Improves Quality in the Workplace.

Kaizen in practice

Although Kaizen can be applied to all aspects of life, its most common application is in the workplace. The fundamental principles of the program revolve around getting to know customers, empowering workers, and being transparent. And for any Kaizen program to be successful, five elements must be included within it:

  1. Teamwork is a critical element as all employees must be able to work together to achieve continuous improvements.
  2. Self-Discipline is required in time management, the quest for quality, and loyalty to the organization.
  3. Higher Morale comes from excellent working conditions, competitive wages and benefits, and an opportunity for promotions, giving workers a sense of security and belonging.
  4. Quality Circles are meeting in which employees have a chance to share ideas, skills, technology, and other relevant resources. This exchange allows them to measure their performance and shows them ways to improve.

Suggestions for Improvement may come from any worker without regard to rank. No matter how absurd the proposal might sound, it is appreciated and considered.

You may also be interested in How can the Kaizen Philosophy Improve the Effectiveness of your MRP System?

Karl H Lauri
Karl H Lauri

For more than 4 years, Karl has been working at MRPeasy with the main goal of getting useful information out to small manufacturers and distributors. He enjoys working with other industry specialists to add real-life insights into his articles, with a special focus on using the feedback from manufacturers implementing MRP software. Karl has also collaborated with respected publications in the manufacturing field, including IndustryWeek and FoodLogistics.

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