17 February, 2022

What is Kaizen? Continuous Improvement? | Video

Kaizen creates change. It translates from the Japanese as change (kai) for the good (zen). And it comes with action.

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Why the Need to Improve?

We always answer the ‘why?’ question.

But really… do we need to do it here?

‘Rust never sleeps.’

Neil Young

If you aren’t improving, you’re getting worse.

What is Kaizen?

Many people equate Kaizen with Continuous Improvement, but this is not so. In fact, the word Kaizen can mean either discrete or continuous change for the better. 

However, in an organizational setting, Kaizen has acquired the meaning of continuous improvement. It’s a long-term approach that tries to make small, incremental changes to improve efficiency and quality. 

We can therefore contrast Kaizen with something like Business Process Re-engineering, which takes a radical approach to overhauling processes.

Kaizen and Lean

Kaizen can be applied to any sort of work, but it began life in the manufacturing sector. Thanks to its adoption as a part of the Toyota Production System, Kaizen is closely associated with lean manufacturing. More recently, the concept of lean has been applied more widely, to Lean:

  • Processes
  • Engineering
  • Development
  • And… Project Management

See our video: What is Lean Project Management? | Video

Kaizen: An Embedded Approach

As Kaizen becomes embedded in a work environment, it becomes everybody’s responsibility. Indeed, it is the workers closest to a task that are best able to figure out how to improve it. So, Kaizen is a democratic and empowering way to run an organization or a project. 

The Origin of Kaizen

The thinking behind Kaizen was introduced into Japan by W. Edwards Deming. Emperor Hirohito honored him for his work, and the impact it had on post-war Japanese manufacturing output.

Kaizen was soon incorporated into the Toyota Production System, which led to its popularization all over the world.

The Link between Kaizen and Muda (Waste)

Another Japanese term that is often associated with Kaizen is ‘Muda’, which means waste. In a related video, Muda, Mura, and Muri. Of course, Kaizen tries to reduce any form of waste.

See our video: What are Muda, Mura, Muri? And, what are the 7 Wastes of Lean? | Video

How to Implement Kaizen

At the heart of Kaizen is the Deming Cycle – also known as the Schewhart Cycle or the PDCA Cycle:

Plan – Do – Check – Act

Deming documented his approach to implementing continuous improvement in his book ‘Out of the Crisis’. Among his imperatives are to:

  • Improve what you do.
  • Build quality into the way you do things and the things you create.
  • Adopt a whole-life costing approach.
  • Work to constantly improve productivity and reduce costs.
  • Use training to improve performance and develop people to their full potential.
  • Lead in a way that helps people to do a better job, and better use the assets they have.
  • Break down barriers and a silo mentality.
  • Instill a sense of autonomy and pride in the work everyone does.
  • Make everyone responsible for working to accomplish this transformation.

Incremental Kaizen and Zenkai

I’ve said that Kaizen need not be a continuous process. It also allows for discrete improvement. This is becoming a more popular approach. A ‘kaizen blitz’ or ‘kaizen event’ is a concentrated effort to make quick changes in a limited context, and often focused on a specific short-term goal. 

A person who makes a big contribution to one of these Kaizen events gets the title of ‘Zenkai’.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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