Things can always be better, right? If you subscribe to the kaizen productivity philosophy, the answer is yes.

What Is Kaizen?

Kaizen is a business strategy that focuses on continuous, incremental improvements to processes, productivity, quality, and culture in the workplace. It’s also a cornerstone of the Lean enterprise, and works with other Lean tools and methodologies like standard work and heijunka.

When done right, kaizen humanizes the workplace, eliminates waste, and streamlines processes. Below, we'll answer the question, “What is kaizen?” and explain the philosophy, strategy, and core components that define it.

What Is Kaizen’s Meaning?

The kaizen definition comes from two Japanese words: “kai” (meaning "change") and “zen” (meaning “good”), which translates to "change for the better" or “good change.”

Though kaizen can be implemented in many different ways, the philosophy centers around three main pillars, often referred to as the “3 Gens” or “3 Actuals.”

  • Gemba. The Japanese word for “workplace,” Gemba focuses on arming your team with the tools they need to work efficiently and effectively.
  • Gen-butsu. Gen-butsu represents the idea of learning through experience as a more effective way to understand how something works, rather than reading instructions or looking at flow charts.
  • Gen-jitsu. This term translates to the “actual facts.” In order to get buy-in for the changes you hope to achieve, you’ll need to gather facts that validate ideas, disprove theories, and uncover what’s really causing a particular problem.

In addition to the “3 Gens,” another core element of kaizen is standardized change.

Standardized change refers to the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” sequence, which comes from the idea that iterative (repetitive) sprints are the best way to make changes fast.

Keep in mind that kaizen isn’t about throwing out existing knowledge and processes. When implemented correctly, kaizen breaks apart the current process and puts it back together again, resulting in an improved process that builds on existing experience and skills.

Watch a Free Kaizen Introductory Video

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Understanding Kaizen

Kaizen’s roots can be traced back to WWII, where widespread shortages and ever-changing demands required quick and implementable improvements. The philosophy was later made popular in the 1980s by Toyota via its Toyota Production System, and has since been embraced by thousands of organizations from all over the world.

Kaizen is made up of two distinct parts: philosophy and action. Here’s a quick look at how that breaks down:

  • Philosophy. The main idea behind kaizen is that improving the organization is everyone’s responsibility, whether they’re on the frontlines or in the C-suite. Every employee should feel empowered to address problems and suggest solutions so that fewer mistakes are made.
  • Action. Employees at all levels work together to improve internal processes, resulting in productivity gains, higher quality products, and increased profits, following a systematic process to drive change:
    • Get employees involved
    • Find problems
    • Create a solution
    • Test that solution
    • Analyze the results
    • Standardize
    • Repeat

Because kaizen focuses on gradual improvement, this approach is often more effective than big initiatives that may be met with resistance or end up being abandoned.

Kaizen Events

Even with the right action plan in place and a culture built around continuous improvement, change doesn’t always happen organically. Kaizen is all about organizing events that focus on driving improvements to core parts of the business.

A kaizen event is a five-day team workshop that involves employees at all levels—particularly those with a direct hand in daily operations. Events are led by a team leader and include training, data gathering, brainstorming, and implementation.

At the close of the event, the team leader creates a follow-up plan and submits a report to the management team.

What Are the 5 Kaizen Principles?

Kaizen is built on a foundation of five key elements that come together to create a culture of continuous improvement:

  • Teamwork. Kaizen aims to create a collaborative culture, where employees and leadership work toward a unified set of goals centered around continuous improvement.
  • Quality Circles. Quality circles are groups that get together to collaborate and share ideas, skills, and other resources.
  • Personal Discipline. Within the kaizen methodology, all employees are held responsible for the success of the group. Everyone is expected to possess the time management skills, attention to detail, and team loyalty that prevent weak links from undermining the group effort.
  • Suggestions for Improvement. Kaizen’s team-oriented culture gives every employee a safe space to share suggestions, where all feedback is welcomed and considered, regardless of rank.
  • Morale. Leadership teams are responsible for implementing a supportive culture with motivational strategies, like merit-based promotions, attractive benefits, and good working conditions, that give employees a sense of security and belonging.

How to Practice Kaizen in Your Own Organization

How do you implement kaizen within your own organization? At a base level, kaizen involves setting standards and continually raising the bar as your team hits certain milestones.

Making improvements follows the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” (PDCA) cycle:

  • Plan. At this stage, you’ll identify a problem, then map out the proposed changes to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes time to start solving.
  • Do. The “do” stage involves implementing the best solution to the problem.
  • Check. At the “check” stage, the team evaluates the solution to determine whether or not it worked.
  • Act. At the “act” stage, the company determines whether or not a solution should be standardized or if it requires additional changes.

Continue that cycle on loop. If more changes are needed (and they often are), the kaizen approach has you go back to step one and start the process all over again.

Gemba Academy’s School of Lean offers several resources for organizations interested in reaping the benefits of kaizen, including cost savings and increased revenue.

Learn more about our course offerings and step into discovering more efficient processes today.

Kaizen Podcasts

Our free Kaizen podcasts provide real world insights into practicing Kaizen.

Gemba podcast 303 adamlawrence

Running a Successful Kaizen Event with Adam Lawrence

Adam Lawrence and Ron discuss everything that goes into running a successful kaizen event, including team selection, engagement, and increasing the chances of “winning.”

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Gemba podcast 211 jeffkaas

How to Navigate a Kaizen Journey with Jeff Kaas

Jeff Kass describes how he discovered Kaizen and how it changed his company.

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Gemba podcast 212 brandonbrown

How to Combine TWI, Kata, and a Kaizen Event with Brandon Brown

Brandon Brown explains how his team have combined elements of TWI, Kata, and Kaizen events into an effective learning system.

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Gemba podcast 80 mikewroblewski

Leadership in Sustaining a Kaizen Culture with Mike Wroblewski

Mike Wroblewski gives a fascinating presentation at Lean Frontiers' Summit on Lean Leadership.

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Gemba podcast 74 ronpereira

Creating a Culture of Kaizen with Ron Pereira

Ron Pereira gives a presentation on what it takes to create a culture of Kaizen.

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Gemba podcast 08 jon miller

Creating a Kaizen Culture with Jon Miller

Jon Miller and Ron Pereira explore how to go about creating a Kaizen culture.

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Listen to more great continuous improvement podcasts at gembapodcast.com

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