Kaizen as a way of work: small improvements, reducing time wastage



People living in western cultures believe, that if you set big goals, you must try hard to achieve them. Unlike eastern cultures, they have a belief that trying hard means doing drastic changes by taking big quantitative leaps.

Japanese attitude represented by Kaizen philosophy resembles more still water or calm wind. At a first glance, the change can be hardly noticed, but after some time the whole rock weathers and breaks down to dust.

What is Kaizen?

Kaizen is a philosophy of constant and continuous improvement. The word itself in Japanese means “change for better”.

Kaizen is best known as the core management principle in Toyota and other Japanese companies. This system is responsible for having made Toyota one of the leaders in the automotive industry.

Employees were according to Kaizen philosophy rewarded for proposing even small improvements. Improvement in Kaizen doesn’t have to be a revolutionary idea. Even simple organizing tools for clearer layout in order to save time can contribute to higher effectivity of the whole company.

Thanks to this, Toyota has been producing cars with minimum waste and remarkably low error-rate.

But besides several japanese businesses, Kaizen was also applied in health care, psychotherapy, life-coaching and other industries.

What is Kaizen about?

It’s somehow in human nature, that people generally resist extreme changes. Kaizen is successful because it is natural. It is about starting continuing to take small steps. Again and again.

But not every step leads to its aim. It must have the right direction first. To know how to distinguish which step leads to its aim, we should define two words which Kaizen is all about – Gemba and Muda.

Gemba means any place where value is created. Not every activity done in Gemba is productive. Things which don’t contribute to creating value are called Muda – meaning waste.

Muda is that step which leads into misdirection and therefore should be identified and quickly removed or reduced to the lowest possible level. It can be defined for any human activity or industry. Here are few examples:

In lean manufacturing Muda can have the following forms:

  • Transport – useless transfer of material and products
  • Inventory – storage is also muda, in ideal company storage doesn’t exists, finished products are immediately distributed to customers
  • Motion – useless motion of workers
  • Waiting – downtimes and unnecessary waiting
  • Over-production – production beyond the requirements of customers is a waste
  • Over-processing – higher quality and processing beyond the requirements of customers is a waste
  • Defects – production of malfunctioning products is a waste

On a personal level in employee time-management Muda would mean unimportant meetings, discussions, phone calls, emails, unused ideas, fixing customers problems, etc.

For service companies Muda is usually defined as:

  • Non-utilized talent of employees
  • Inappropriate or dysfunctional information system
  • Unclear business strategy and activities not complying with it
  • Unwon market opportunities
  • Unnecessary administration
  • Unnecessary requirements on customers

According to Kaizen, the best improvement ideas and the clear view of problems (Muda) will come only by going to the Gemba. Therefore managers in Toyota go on regular Gemba walks to see the actual process, understand the work, ask questions, and learn.

Except Gemba walks, the richest source for revealing where the origin of losses is, should come from employees. They know their workplace best. If they spot any Muda, they should immediately inform their superior manager. One can guess that the method works only when people are proposing improvements and are rewarded accordingly.

In the next step, managers and employees plan how should the proposed improvements be implemented. Then the actual results are carefully measured and compared against the expected ones. If they prove to be a real improvement they become a new standard. The whole cycle continues and the process is neverending.

Additional Reading

We’ve covered the basics here, but if you are interested in the topic further, click on the link below.

5 books everyone who wants to practice Kaizen should read

We have made list of the best books in the field which would help you master the art of Kaizen and improve both: your personal life and business processes.

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