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Kaizen Means Continuous Improvement: A Process For Every Company

written by: Bruce Tyson • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 6/29/2013

Kaizen is a philosophy that calls for people and their organizations to experience ongoing improvement at every level. By focusing on small, incremental change rather than dramatic innovation, Kaizen seeks to build effective and efficient processes and quality outputs.

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    Where Did the Term Originate?

    kaizen Kaizen originated in Japan in the aftermath of World War II. Ironically, it evolved in part from American business leaders such as Dr. W. Edwards Deming who came to help rebuild the country. Although Dr. Deming is largely credited for instituting the principles of Kaizen in Japan, it was first introduced by a 1951 training film created by the American Economic and Scientific Section (ESS). Kaizen's elimination of waste through the maintenance and improvement of processes became central to Japanese management philosophy and has since spread around the world to companies and organizations wishing to emulate the success of Japanese business.

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    Fundamentals of Kaizen

    Kaizen recognizes the connection between outcomes and processes. If the results from an organization are of poor quality, the processes used to achieve those results require attention. This understanding is part of the fabric of Japanese society, even on the personal level, and explains why Kaizen is so successful there.

    The manner in which processes are addressed is a key element of Kaizen. While in the West, innovation (radical change) is often sought, Kaizen seeks constant incremental change, which produces tremendous results over time. Because the changes in Kaizen are small, mistakes can easily be corrected without involving much risk or expense. This tends to make Kaizen processes less wasteful than innovation, where failure can result in tremendous loss.

    Central to the philosophy of Kaizen are two cycles that involve processes for improvement and for maintenance: Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) and Standardize-Do-Check-Act (SDCA). When improving processes, "Planning" establishes the targets for improvement. The "Do" step refers to the implementation of the plan. The implementation is monitored and evaluated during the "Check" phase, and the process is incorporated as a standard during the "Act" part of the cycle.

    The Maintenance cycle, SDCA is invoked when a failure occurs. "Standardization" seeks to stabilize processes so they can be improved. By understanding if a failure occurred because of a poor or non-existent standard or because an existing standard wasn't followed, managers can implement specific actions to correct it. Once a standard is put into place and put into practice, it can become the focus of the PDCA cycle.

    The PDCA and SDCA cycles of Kaizen never end, propelling the organization slowly but surely to high efficiency and high quality outputs.

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    Other Essential Aspects

    Other concepts that are invoked with Kaizen are quality first, data interaction, and "processes as customers" and are summarized as follows:

    Quality First. Kaizen requires that quality is a primary objective, more than timeliness or even cost. Kaizen recognizes that without a quality product, organizations will not be able to compete.

    Data Interaction. Because Kaizen deals with addressing problems or limitations, every situation must be properly comprehended. Kaizen has no room for "seat of the pants" operations. Sound data must be collected and analyzed for Kaizen to work.

    Processes as Customers. Kaizen promotes the concept of internal and external customers. By regarding every process in a series as a "customer" of the preceding process, every stage of production can be focused for a quality outcome. If every internal customer is delivered high quality goods, the external customer will have a high quality product to purchase.

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    Hazards

    The results of many Japanese companies make Kaizen appealing to businesses in the West, prompting them to adopt Kaizen as their own philosophy. Still, Kaizen doesn't always work. Kaizen often fails when tried because upper management is not committed to it and is not involved in it. This often happens when Kaizen is adopted as an innovation meant to quickly boost the bottom line.

    Cultural differences often account for the failure of Kaizen. In Japan, the need for constant improvement at every level of society and in every individual role is acknowledged and accepted, making Kaizen a natural fit in the workplace. Western cultures often don't share these core values, meaning that intense training and education is required before workers can be fully committed to Kaizen.

    Expediency is another common threat to Kaizen. Often managers are tempted to sacrifice quality in order to accommodate deadlines or budget restraints.