Kaizen 101: an introduction to Lean manufacturing's key philosophy

Monday April 29, 2019
Written by Jesse Allred
April 29, 2019 – Kaizen, a Japanese term meaning improvement, is more than a Lean strategy; it is a philosophy that affects the entirety of an organization.

Lean manufacturing aims to eliminate waste and Kaizen focuses on creating an environment and culture for that to successfully happen, making it a key pillar of Lean. The Kaizen philosophy supports the improvement of productivity and efficiency through continuous effort, and through implementing small changes on a regular basis.

A brief history of Kaizen
The concept of Kaizen was born out of necessity. Kaizen’s origin can be traced back to Training Within Industry (TWI), a program created in the United States during World War II by the U.S. Department of War. Facing a shortage of trained labour and an increased demand of output, companies needed to find a way to improve without the resources necessary for large-scale changes and projects.

TWI used the concept of small-step improvement and the empowerment of employees. Following the war, American professionals traveled to Japan to assist in rebuilding the country’s economy. A director of the TWI Foundation was hired to provide training in Japan, introducing the program as “Kaizen eno Yon Dankai,” or “Improvement in Four Steps.” The program was well received by businesses, most notably the Toyota Motor Corporation. Toyota fused its use of quality control circles with principles from TWI in the development of the Toyota Production System, making Kaizen a foundational principle.

Kaizen was introduced globally when Masaaki Imai, a Japanese management consultant and organization theorist, worked with Taiichi Ohno to spread the message of the Toyota Production System. Imai founded the Kaizen Institute Consulting Group in 1985 and in the following year he introduced Kaizen as a management system in the book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. Kaizen is now used by Lean organizations worldwide to maximize productivity, improve efficiency and eliminate waste.

Kaizen philosophy
Kaizen is all about continuous improvement through small changes. These incremental changes are believed to be more beneficial and powerful than large, disruptive changes. Kaizen changes are considered low-cost and low-risk, meaning if you implement a minor change and it does not work out the way it was intended, it’s no big deal. However, when successful changes take place and happen consistently, these small changes will yield dramatic results over time.

Shifting the entire mindset of a company is no small feat. The beginning of your Kaizen efforts should start with training. Hold discussions with employees where you explain how Kaizen works and how it can benefit the organization. This also gives workers the opportunity to ask questions and engage with the changes more actively. It is important to do this early on in the process as Kaizen works best when everyone is involved.

Frontline operators and assembly workers are on the floor every day observing processes, giving them valuable insight on the efficiency of the manufacturing line. Kaizen empowers employees by giving them the opportunity to identify areas or processes that could be improved, suggest solutions and see their solutions implemented. Workers are likely to become more engaged and feel like they have more of an impact on the company, which can directly improve productivity. The role of management here is to help maintain and improve standards, provide goals or targets for improvement, and to verify changes with tangible evidence.

Kaizen fundamentals
All employees should be encouraged to participate in Kaizen and provided the tools they need to succeed. Kaizen includes methods, strategies and systems for both managers and employers to use.

These are the fundamentals for creating a continuous improvement culture and applying the Kaizen philosophy to the factory floor:

  • PDCA Cycle: One of the most important tools is the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycle. Kaizen activities are often carried out using this four-step approach. The cyclical and ongoing nature of the PDCA cycle inherently fosters a continuous mindset. Also called the Shewhart or Deming cycle, PDCA starts with the assessment of the process or issue at hand.

    Problems are examined in detail and possible solutions are developed to be implemented in the next phase. After implementation, results are evaluated, and the outcome will determine how you will carry out the Act phase.

    If changes were successful, go back to the first step and begin planning how the changes can be standardized across the company. However, if the outcome was not beneficial, you will still go back to the beginning of the cycle and work through the steps again. Even if the results weren’t considered a success, you now have a better baseline for developing a new plan of action. 
  • Kaizen Blitz: What we’ve discussed thus far could be considered daily Kaizen. A Kaizen blitz, or Kaizen event, is a more focused effort on improvement that is scheduled over a set period of time. Where daily Kaizen is integrated into the everyday culture of the organization, a Kaizen blitz is a planned event where a single issue or process is examined. These are structured activities that can be used to address a timely or urgent problem, and an even be an effective tool to help you get unstuck from the rut that daily Kaizen can fall into.

  • Quality Circles: Quality control circles have been a key element of Kaizen since its inception and continue to play an important role in Lean. Quality circles consist of a small group of employees who perform the same or similar job tasks. They meet on a regular basis to discuss areas of improvement and issues related to their role at work. The group develops solutions and either implements change themselves or propose the solution to management, working through the PDCA cycle. 

  • Root-Cause Analysis: Improvements can only be made when the root cause is being addressed. Identifying and resolving the underlying problem will often lead to solve a number of associated issues. In order to get past surface-level problems, you can use tools such as the 5 Whys. Begin with the problem at hand and ask “Why?” as many times as necessary to find the root of problem. This is a great strategy for managers, frontline workers and quality circles to use when looking for improvements. 

  • Gemba: Gemba is a Japanese term meaning “the real place.” Taking a Gemba walk involves managers going down to the assembly line or factory floor and observing processes up close. This is an excellent time for frontline workers to communicate issues and suggest improvement ideas. 
Kaizen works to improve all functions of the manufacturing process through a culture of continuous improvement, in turn yielding less waste and a more efficient and productive production line.
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Jesse Allred writes for Creative Safety Supply, a visual safety supplier. 

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