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Change for the Better: What Kaizen can do for you


Continuous improvement — this is the dream for forward-thinking shop floor stakeholders across all industries. However, few manage to facilitate such sustained advancement. In fact, more than 40% of the business leaders who spearhead continuous improvement efforts find themselves overseeing failing programs, according to research published in Harvard Business Review. There are a number of common contributing factors, including lacking daily practice. Yes, reinforcing continuous improvement through everyday exercises is essential to success. But how exactly can leaders promote this kind of necessary daily rededication? Embracing the Kaizen methodology ranks among the best options.

Organizations in virtually every sector leverage this Japanese philosophy, which emphasizes operational transformation through incremental optimization. Both formalized and impromptu ideation and root-cause analysis exercises are key to achieving these outcomes. Business leaders who want to implement continuous improvement initiatives that work would be wise to adopt the Kaizen approach and work with employees at all levels to make pragmatic, enduring change.

Mapping the emergence of Kaizen

Kaizen and lean manufacturing occupy the same theoretical orbit. This makes sense considering that they both emerged from the same location: the original Toyota Motor Company production plant located in Toyota, Japan. It was here that management consultant Masaaki Imai collaborated with former Toyota Chairman Shoichiro Toyoda to develop shop floor processes that facilitated continuous improvement or “change for the better,” the literal Japanese translation of Kaizen. These workflows empowered workers to address deficiencies in real time, Quartz contributor Melody Wilding reported. The automaker directed production teams to stop work and collaborate to find solutions for assembly process problems, quotas be damned. This approach reduced error occurrence and wastage and boosted efficiency, helping Toyota evolve into the biggest vehicle manufacturer on Earth.

Imai cataloged, organized, and formalized the strategies deployed at Toyota and published them in his landmark 1986 book, “Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success.” He established the Kaizen Institute one year later, which he has since used to promote the Kaizen approach.

Unpacking the Kaizen methodology

Kaizen centers on five foundational principles. These include:

  • Knowing the customer: Understand what customers want and develop positive experiences that appeal to them.
  • Let it flow: Eliminate waste wherever possible and focus on value creation on every organizational level.
  • Go to gemba: Seek out continuous improvement where value creation happens — the production areas.
  • Empower people: Give employees the agency, tools, and support they need to pursue continuous change.
  • Be transparent: Leverage accessible performance metrics to propel operational decision-making.

These core concepts underlie all the actionable frameworks and tools that facilitate Kaizen application. Actually implementing the philosophy necessitates coordination and commitment, as only business leaders who adhere to overarching event schedules and agendas can uncover the kinds of shop floor insights that lay the groundwork for sustainable organizational advancement. As mentioned above, Kaizen methodology emphasizes internal collaboration, ideation, and problem solving through formalized sessions. While these gatherings do not generally occur daily, the more consistent and focused cooperation that unfolds, the more likely positive change is to happen.

Organizations in virtually every sector leverage Kaizen methodology, which emphasizes operational transformation through incremental optimization.

All Kaizen events have the same goals: getting stakeholders in one place, reviewing existing processes, improving existing processes, and ensuring buy-in. However, these sessions do not share identical frameworks — the strategy allows for variation. Here are some of the most common types of Kaizen events in use now:

  • Blitz: Here, personnel completely deconstruct a specific process and reassemble it in an effort to achieve improvement.
  • Burst: This event, which happens over the course of three to five days, focuses on rapid process improvement and empowers staff to develop and deploy quick changes with big impact.
  • Workshop: During a five-day period, team members conceive production improvements, implement them, and then measure shop floor performance to determine their efficacy.

While there are numerous other Kaizen session types — businesses that have adopted the philosophy over the years have also helped expand it — the collaborative formats mentioned above are typically considered canon.

Coordinating an effective Kaizen event

Kaizen events are immense productions. Internal stakeholders from different departments mingle with external consultants, executive team members depart their corner offices and make appearances, and in the end everyone unites to flip the switch on fresh production processes. With so much involved, impeccable coordination is absolutely essential. Fortunately, there are a good number of formalized event management best practices available to business leaders hosting their first Kaizen sessions. Here are some of the many variables that those involved in Kaizen event planning should address to facilitate success:

  • Location: While improvement implementation will obviously unfold on the shop floor, participants must have access to a space within which they can collaborate effectively.
  • The agenda: Freewheeling brain storming is not an option within the confines of the Kaizen approach, meaning all events must come with clear-cut agendas.
  • The sponsor: Kaizen events typically have high-level internal sponsors who use their clout to green-light operational changes and generally lend support.
  • The attendees: Individuals who attend Kaizen events are expected to contribute by mining their specific expertise and experience, a reality that makes attendee selection key.
  • The objectives: Kaizen events are meant to spur immediate action that leads to measurable and planned production improvement.
  • Information access: The Kaizen approach as a whole emphasizes the use of data during decision-making. Attendees must therefore have access to any internal insights they need.
  • Decision-making: Determining how final decisions are made is critical to Kaizen event success.

These are just a handful of the many factors that Kaizen adherents take into account when planning internal events, as continuous improvement often unfolds as a consequence of strong coordination.

Generating ROI the Kaizen way

Kaizen ranks among the most popular strategies for achieving continuous improvement — and for good reason. With roots in Toyota and Japan’s immensely well-respected industrial culture, the strategy easily holds up to scrutiny and can give business leaders the power to transform their companies, should they follow best practices. Of course, even stakeholders who fully embrace Kaizen can encounter difficulties stemming from the significant coordination requirements. Fortunately, these professionals have a place to turn for assistance: USC Consulting Group. We have been helping enterprises of all sizes embrace the agents of continuous change, including the Kaizen methodology.

Connect with USCCG today to learn more about are services and wide breadth of experience.

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