If there is one thing we know, it is that every aspect of life can be improved. Whether in family life, work, interpersonal relationships or daily life, there are points that can be improved. And that is what the Kaizen method is all about.
This method, which is more of a philosophy, is based on the idea that we must constantly take small actions to achieve better results and a better life. This is the cornerstone of the continuous improvement process that can be applied to increase business effectiveness. In this article you will discover what the Kaizen method is, its objectives, how it works, advantages and disadvantages, how to apply it and more.
What is the Kaizen method?
Also known as continuous improvement, the Kaizen method derives from two Japanese terms. On the one hand kai, which means “improvement”, and zen, which refers to “good” or “well-being”.
Thus, this method refers to the process of continuous improvement in multiple aspects of a company, from the macro to the micro level. Its principle is based on the idea that by making small improvements continuously over time, these can lead to major changes in the long term.
History and origins of the concept
Although, as stated, the word has Japanese roots, some basis for it is seen in the United States after World War II as part of a Training Within Industry (TWI) programme. Only after this, and also after the end of the war, was it implemented in Japan.
This is how Kaizen was consolidated as a method for promoting and implementing small, high-impact improvements, precisely in a post-war situation when Japan had to re-emerge with limited resources that slowed down development and made it imperative to rebuild its industry. In this context, Kaizen functioned as a promoter of small changes, both at the economic and social levels. The result? By 1960, Japan had regained its stability and was emerging as a solid economy in the world.
The Kaizen philosophy
The Kaizen philosophy, which is based on the process of continuous improvement, involves adopting the culture of ongoing enhancement. This involves focusing on eliminating activities that do not add value (eliminating both waste and wastefulness in production systems), with the precepts of commitment and discipline being fundamental, at all levels of the organization.
Successful application of this philosophy involves adhering to its principles, which are:
1- Questioning current practices
2- Keep an open mind
3- Seeing problems as opportunities
4- Have a positive attitude
5- Letting go of perfectionism and focusing on simplicity
6- Correcting and learning from mistakes
7- Encourage participation without blame or judgement
8- Practice the 5s method (see below).
9- Using creativity to find low-cost solutions
10- Do not stop looking for improvement
What are the objectives of the Kaizen method?
In order to understand the Kaizen method we must also refer to an area called “Gemba” (work zone), because from there productivity is increased by controlling processes with time reduction, standardization of quality criteria and work methods. In this scenario, some objectives can be set, such as:
- Elimination of losses
- Unit flow
- Data exchange in a single minute
- Visual control and organisation in the workplace
- Top quality
- Total productive maintenance
How does the Kaizen method work?
It is important to know that the Kaizen method involves the constant evolution of the processes that make up the company’s production system. This means considering certain quality standards and constantly measuring the results obtained.
In order to do this, certain techniques that can be useful must be put into operation, which are detailed below.
The five “S’s” of the Kaizen method
The five “S” of the Kaizen method refers to 5 Japanese words. Each one represents a step as part of a strategy for proper organisation and a disciplined work environment to reduce – or eliminate – unproductive time and to design a better production system.
- Seiri: Sorting between the useful and useless
- Seiton: Sorting out the useful and deciding on the useless
- Seiso: Maintaining order and cleanliness
- Seiketzu: Taking care of personal hygiene and grooming
- Sheitzuke: Encouraging discipline and self-control for better productivity
The Just in time method (JIT)
The name goes back to Kiichiro Toyoda – son of Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) founder Sakichi Toyoda and president of the company from 1941 to 1950 – who aimed to produce only what was needed at the right time.
Just in Time (JIT) is a production methodology that seeks to increase efficiency and reduce costs by reducing or eliminating waste in the process. This implies that materials are produced or delivered in the right quantity at the right time. That is, without excesses or shortages, neither too early nor too late.
This leads to increased added value in the tasks performed along the production flow, reducing waiting times, overstocking and even unnecessary movements.
The PDCA cycle or Deming circle
The Deming circle (a concept devised by Walter A. Shewhart), also known as the PDCA cycle, is a four-step strategy for continuous quality improvement:
1- Planning: The activities to be improved are identified and the objectives to be achieved are established.
2- Do: Changes are made to implement the proposed improvement.
3- Control or verify: Once the improvement has been implemented, a trial period is left to verify its correct functioning.
4- Act: The results must be studied and compared with the functioning of the activities before the improvement was implemented. Depending on its success or not, the improvement is either implemented, adjusted or discarded.
The “5 whys” method
This technique – which was developed by the founder of Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC), Sakichi Toyoda – consists of brainstorming and is based on asking “Why?” as many times as necessary (not necessarily five, it can be more or less) until the cause of the problem is determined.
These repetitive questions allow you to explore the cause and effect relationships underlying a given problem, and thus get to the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “why?
The advantages of the Kaizen method – how does it help companies?
There are several benefits or advantages associated with the implementation of the Kaizen method, among which are some such as:
- Reducing waste, residues and unnecessary activities
- Create leaders in organisations
- Promotes personal and work values
- Create positive and constructive habits
- Increases satisfaction levels
- Increases commitment and efficiency
- Increased competitiveness
Enemies of the Kaizen Method
Not everything is advantageous when talking about the Kaizen method, as we may encounter some obstacles along the way. These include the following:
- Resistance to change on the part of workers
- Lack of leadership, e.g. disengaged management that does not captivate employees
- Lack of resources, whether time, money or other resources
- Lack of monitoring, as this method involves constant evaluation to ensure that efforts do not fail.
How to implement continuous improvement in the company: steps to implement the Kaizen method
You are interested in applying it, but how should you do it? Here we summarise the fundamental steps to put it into practice:
1- Form a working team
2- Define the objectives
3- Collect and analyse the data
4- Observe and monitor the process
5- Design strategies and a plan of action
6- Keep track of changes
7- Standardise and document
Practical examples of how the kaizen method is adopted within companies
In addition to taking into account techniques such as the 5s, here are some tips on how to adopt the Kaizen method in a company in a practical way:
- Set clear, realistic and well-documented goals, with common objectives that foster unity and commitment.
- Review the situation and develop an optimisation plan.
- Plan regular meetings with those involved, so that managers and employees never stop collaborating and working towards the goal of continuous improvement.
- Implement the improvements that have been decided upon.
- Review the situation and, if necessary, make corrections.
- A report will be drawn up, including the results and identifying elements for follow-up.
Companies using the Kaizen method
The Kaizen philosophy or method is used by world-renowned companies such as Toyota (this company is based on this method), Samsung, Sony, Amazon or Nestlé.
Adopting this method generates a continuous improvement in its activities and the fulfilment of its goals or objectives.
Using the Kaizen method in an organisation, and its essence of continuous improvement, makes the benefits more tempting than the disadvantages, as it means that a company is always reviewing its steps to improve them.