What is Kaizen?

In the Lean and Toyota Production System, the word Kaizen is thrown around a lot. But what is Kaizen? Kaizen is the process of gradual, continual imrovement in company processes. Watch the video below to learn more!




In Lean or Toyota Production System, Kaizen means improvement usually in small steps. The Japanese word symbol for Kaizen literally means change good. So it is closely tied to our Western notion of constant or continuous improvement. In contrast, Kaikaku means sudden major change or reformation. Kaizen is one of the foundational principles of Toyota Production System. When you see this sort of image representing the system, Kaizen is almost always in the foundation along with 5S, operational availability, standardized work, and other key principles.

Everyone who does a process should constantly improve it. Those who do a process own the process, and are responsible for making it better and better. Improvement is measured by how much closer the change brings the process to the ideal state. The ideal state of a process is that the output is free of defects, can be delivered one request a time, can be supplied on demand in the version requested, can be delivered immediately, can be produced without wasting any materials, labor energy, or other resources, and can be produced in a work environment that is safe physically, emotionally, and professionally for every employee. The charter for every improvement project should directly connect with one or more of these factors. The Lean in Toyota Production tools are both simple and productive. When you’re using simple tools, making small improvements is a good strategy. If the improvement does not work out as planned, it is relatively easy to change back to the old system.

There are several tools that are associated with Lean and Toyota Production System. These include Poka Yoke, spaghetti diagrams, 5S, fish bone diagrams, and control charts to mention a few. One of the guiding principles is that any improvement must be made in accordance with the scientific method, under the guidance of a teacher, at the lowest possible level in the organization. The terms kaizen blitz and kaizen event have become popular in the U.S. Literally, those terms mean sudden gradual improvement. While there’s good reason to quickly study and begin changing a process, long-term success also requires internal motivation. It’s real work, long-term attention, constancy of purpose, and instilling in everyone that doing as well as we did last year is depending on lazy competitors for market position.

Kaikaku or sudden major change is more associated with Six Sigma than Lean or Toyota Production System. Six Sigma adds more powerful tools for the practitioner and they allow major changes to be made with confidence. Toyota did attempt to put in place a Kaikaku system several years ago. They had great difficulty getting it to work. People who claim to know tell me the Japanese culture tends to favor gradual change more than our Western culture does. Whatever the reason, it is true that Toyota Production System and its American cousin Lean, when confidently done, routinely produce excellent results. Thank you for watching.

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