What is the Kaizen Methodology and Its Goals?

In Agile Archives we talk a lot about methodologies, techniques and their practical application in the world of project management. With Kaizen we’ll need to start by getting a bit more spiritual and philosophical.

The Philosophy behind Kaizen

You may have already heard about Japanese philosophies such as Ikigai (“things that we live for”) or Wabi-Sabi (“accepting your imperfections”). Way of life philosophies which have long been an inherent part of culture and beliefs in the land of the rising sun. Well, Kaizen could well be placed amongst these; “Kai” meaning “change”, “Zen” meaning “become good.” Namely, as a concept; doing something for the genuine good of the people or process. The closest translation, albeit still not capturing the full essence of Kaizen, is often thought to be “continuous improvement” or perhaps simply “improvement”, although the less common word “betterment” is possibly more appropriate.         

A Brief History of Kaizen

Philosophy often leads to methodology. In Japan in the 1950s, the rebuilding and revitalization of the industry was essential after the devastation of World War Two. The infrastructure of the country had been destroyed but the brainpower and manpower remained. Business managers sought ways to regenerate production efficiency by improving their processes and practices and were aided by characters such as W. Edwards Deming, an American engineer. His role in the change and his outlook on improving productivity in manufacturing could best be summed up by this quote from him;

It’s not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best.

W. Edwards Deming

Deming left his legacy, since the core of Kaizen was, and still is, the PDCA Cycle (Plan, Do, Check, Act), originally based on the Shewhart Cycle of 1939 then later the Deming Wheel/Circle of 1950. Kaizen was most famously associated with the multinational motor company Toyota through its implementation in the “Toyota Production System”, the essence of which being the involvement of the entire workforce in improving quality. This is known as the Toyota 5S;

  1. Seiri-Classification
  2. Seiton-Order
  3. Seiso-Cleaning
  4. Seiketsu-Standardization
  5. Shitsuke-Discipline

Largely unaffected by the Cold War going on elsewhere in the world and the resulting inertia caused in production and development, Japan swung towards an economy based upon the electronics industry. This, in turn, led other Japanese companies, among them the electronics giant Sony, to adopt the approach and methodology of Kaizen. Its influence in the country being able to regain its status as an industrial and technological super-power has become universally accepted. Nowadays, Kaizen is a globally-used method in a host of different industries.

The Kaizen Methodology and Goals

If Lean thinking in Agile terminology can be described as focusing on value, small batch sizes and the elimination of waste then Kaizen methodology is certainly a cornerstone of it. However, it goes deeper than this since its approach looks at an entire company by focusing on a range of key areas: quality, costs, logistics, employee motivation, safety, technology and, in more recent years, the environment. Its fundamental goals could be described as improving productivity and quality, limiting waste, and humanizing the workplace by engaging the workforce.

Current Kaizen Practices

Initially, one needs to question the current practices within a business by reflecting on what is done now. This can be rather challenging since we all tend to be content with the way we do things and not very self-critical of our own existing processes. However, as arduous as taking this on may be, it is necessary if we really desire the implementation of any significant changes.

If a current practice is to be reviewed, we must ask some basic questions first:

  1. Why is the step being performed?
  2. What value is being added?
  3. Where is the work being done?
  4. When is the step thought of as completed?
  5. Who is doing the work?
  6. How is it being done?
  7. How often is it done?

This is the platform for the critical thinking which ideally ensues.

Kaizen Events

The practical application of Kaizen within an organization is via a Kaizen Event. This is usually a team workshop held over two to five days in which goals are set for quite a substantial issue that requires improvement. At its core is the idea of brainstorming amongst all the team with a view to finding weaknesses, receiving suggestions on how to solve them, and developing the best approach to implementing the new ideas.

When the need for a change is not so major and can often be brought about in a shorter period of time, another approach is to utilize Daily Kaizen. In this, the team meets on a more regular basis, as its name suggests, and ideas on improvement are added or removed as an ongoing process.

In a similar way to the timing and regularity of events within other spheres of project management and Agile methodology, it is arguably better to combine both Kaizen Events and Daily Kaizen in order to gain optimum results.  

Improving Productivity and Quality

Kaizen has the targets of better quality and productivity, faster product turnover, and a more rapid return on investment. There are a wealth of case studies to be found which prove the beneficial effects of applying Kaizen within workplaces. Throughout varying industries, all of these illustrate greater production, higher quality and, last but not least, increases in both sales and bottom line profits. In the modern age, rapid changes in both technology and customer needs are forcing companies to adapt and self-analyze their approaches. A broader range of products and services with lower cost and faster response times have to be offered in order to keep any company competitive.

The quality of a product has thankfully once again become a key buying point for most consumers. No longer content with purchasing the cheapest whatever the quality, the market is demanding something good at a competitive price and Kaizen recognizes this in its ideas on continuous improvement. I can remember years ago when I was a boy, everyone sneered at the neighbour down the road who owned a Japanese car. They wouldn’t today. 

Improving quality also includes improving safety and a company’s effects on the environment. Having a safer workplace is another positive of Kaizen. Improvements in both health and safety aspects result from the generation and implementation of new ideas on cleaning and organizing a work area. Furthermore, in these environmentally friendly days, we must be very aware of how processes and production can negatively affect the world we live in. We can mention Toyota again here since their leading role in the production of less environmentally damaging motor vehicles has created a benchmark for the rest of the industry.   

Limiting Waste

If you consider the logistics of many operations, a great deal of time, effort and money are wasted. Just sit in a restaurant and observe the below-average waiter making three trips to the kitchen when he could have done all his tasks in one. At the centre of Kaizen is the requirement to provide a well-planned work area, eliminating unnecessary movement or operations. Increasing efficiency and limiting waste requires analysis of processes, the correction of faults and proper training for staff.

Money is lost in business because of waste. Wasting products, having an excessive inventory, and on your payroll because of inefficient work practices. Kaizen seeks to correct these shortfalls and simultaneously does not strive to alter everything in one go. Its small, immediate and incremental improvements need far less capital investment.     

Engaging the Workforce

In Kaizen, conditions are created to engage the workforce of a business. By engagement we mean attempting to allow everyone to feel more connected to both their work and their colleagues providing them with a sense of partial ownership. In addition, opportunities exist to analyze and solve current problems with practical and creative solutions. Employees at all levels within different sectors of an organization are encouraged to generate ideas for improvement however small they may seem. By investigating, deciding upon and implementing these micro-changes, continuous improvements in existing work processes are achieved.

At times this can be comparable to more commonly known ideas like Time and Motion studies from business efficiency techniques of the 20th Century. The major difference being that the procedure in Kaizen is employee-instigated not employer-instigated, therefore recognizing that in the majority of cases the hands-on worker understands a process better than someone further up the hierarchy who is often limited to theoretical knowledge only. Generally, and if controlled with thoughtfulness, employee input has a positive impact on any business’s processes and ultimate success because of the way in which multiple ideas are generated and small changes are made.

However, it should be noted that introducing Kaizen into a company will almost certainly need clear direction from the top and undoubtedly in most cases, a shift in the culture of the business. This is in no way an easy change but organizations such as the Kaizen Institute itself can provide training in the principles and philosophy prior to the teaching of the methods. Remember that Kaizen is more of a mindset than a set of tools and that if everybody’s in it together and feel that possible improvements are their responsibility, they should all want the organization to succeed.  

The PDCA Cycle – The Core of Kaizen

The PDCA Cycle is a continuous cycle and framework which can aid the improvement of virtually any process by breaking down the steps. A simple Kaizen diagram can be used to visualize these steps keeping all the team members and others updated on its state of progress.

  1. Plan – The current situation or process is analyzed; its present state and shortfalls with suggestions from all involved. An action plan is then defined with a clear goal or set of goals.
  2. Do – If a suggestion seems promising it can be tried out. Often, this can be done immediately. This is the implementation of your plan.
  3. Check – An analysis of the results of the implementation in comparison to the information you had before starting the action. If the results match the goals which you set you can move on. If not, you must return to the beginning.
  4. Act – If the cycle has reached this stage, namely that the new way is superior to the old, the actions should be standardized to fix them in the process. But, since it is a process of continuous improvement, they are still subject to ongoing analysis and the likelihood of further PDCA cycles. Kaizen aims at improvement not the impossible of complete perfection.   

The PDCA Cycle as a concept is not that intricate and many would regard it as common sense. But, how many businesses that you’ve seen clearly do not analyze or attempt to improve their working practices. Just think again about that waiter in the restaurant running around like a headless chicken. He is a good case in point since probably nobody has ever sat him down and asked for his ideas on how the flow of work on the floor of the restaurant could be improved and streamlined. You never know, he might well understand better than the manager what fault in the operation is making him have to walk 3 miles a day instead of 1.        

“Betterment”, “improvement”, “continuous improvement”, “change to become good”; still none of these are the best linguistic translations of “Kaizen”. But hopefully, it can be seen that an understanding of the philosophy, methodology and goals of Kaizen is far more important to your business than what you would like to call it.