The Kaizen continuous improvement process explained

08 September 2021

We’ve already talked about the lean methodology and how it can benefit your business by stripping away the unnecessary elements and focusing on the essentials. A branch of the lean approach, Kaizen is a method that favours small but continuous improvements to make large, positive changes to the company as a whole

Low risk and inexpensive, Kaizen introduces process improvements that don’t require a large capital investment. That means employees can be encouraged to try out new things. If an idea doesn’t end up working out, they can revert to previous methods without incurring any notable costs.

Here, we’ll delve into the Kaizen philosophy in more detail to see how it might improve your approach to all things business from the top down.

 

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What is Kaizen?

Originating from the Japanese words for change (kai) and good (zen), Kaizen is based on the philosophical belief that all things can be improved. Whereas the status quo would view a certain process as running just fine, Kaizen looks at how the same process might be fine-tuned and improved over time.

And where other models strive for quick changes and instant results, slow and steady is very much the Kaizen approach. Its changes can often be so small, they may well be unnoticeable at first glance. But it’s these same incremental improvements that create vast changes over time.

Since it’s more of a philosophy than a codified tool, Kaizen can be used in many process improvement methods. In a business adhering to the concept, all employees are responsible for identifying gaps and inefficiencies, with everyone - at all levels - suggesting where improvements can take place.

Principles of Kaizen 

At Kaizen’s core, there’s a selection of principles designed to optimise the mindset and attitude of everyone in a business, which are as follows:

  • Let go of assumptions
  • Be proactive about problem-solving
  • Don’t accept the status quo
  • Let go of perfectionism and make an iterative, adaptive change
  • Look for solutions when you find mistakes
  • Create an environment in which everyone feels empowered to contribute
  • Don’t accept the obvious issue; ask “why” and get to the root cause
  • Collect information and opinions from multiple people
  • Use creativity to find low-cost, small improvements
  • Never stop improving

What are the benefits of Kaizen?

Greater teamwork and ownership

By giving employees the freedom to suggest ideas, teams take responsibility for their work as a group. Teamwork lies at the heart of Kaizen, creating a work atmosphere that’s rewarding for everyone. And when problems are solved together, the sense of team spirit increases, allowing relationships to flourish as tasks are completed with a fresh perspective.

Improved employee engagement

As a result, employees become actively involved and engaged within the company. A more engaged workforce means more efficient processes, lower turnover and an environment where innovation flows into every idea. When employees are engaged, it has a positive impact on the company’s performance too, improving both employee and customer satisfaction.

As engagement increases, productivity also receives a boost. When employees know their suggestions play a part in the company, it can have a powerful effect on things as a whole.

Fewer wasted resources

By only focusing on the things that matter, inessential parts of your business’ processes fall by the wayside. Kaizen encourages everyone to identify problems, analyse them, find the cause and suggest alternatives. This constant change streamlines each process and means less excess.

Increased efficiency

Trimming this business fat creates a leaner, tighter ship with much-improved efficiency. Toyota, a well-known advocate of Kaizen, uses the philosophy to get its employees building cars with strict precision, starting with muscle memory training. As a result, cars roll off the production line with speed and accuracy.

Instant troubleshooting

In a Kaizen environment, problems are met head-on. Decisions and alternatives are suggested immediately. This proactive approach reduces lead time and gets production and processes back on track. And what starts as temporary solutions could just as easily become permanent changes further down the line.

Improved safety

Because it declutters everyone’s physical and mental headspace, Kaizen keeps the work environment safe too. By implementing ideas that serve to clean up the areas where employees work, there’s greater control over equipment and processes. This can help to cut down on any accident-related injuries that might negatively affect production such as employees taking time off from work to handle medical emergencies.

What does the Kaizen cycle look like? 

Another of Kaizen’s beliefs is its focus on the continuous. So, when issues are identified and solutions are created, they’re rolled out and then cycled through to see whether they adequately address the problem.

The cycle for continuous improvement goes as follows:

Get employees involved: For Kaizen to work, it requires buy-in from your employees, so show them how it can beneficial to the workplace culture. Look for their involvement by asking them to identify issues. At this stage, this can either be as groups or as individuals.

 

  • Identify problems: After receiving feedback from your employees, create a list of problems and start to identify any opportunities that could deal with the issues. 
  • Create a solution: Encourage employees to offer creative solutions to the issues. It’s important to stress that nothing is off the table at this point, so make sure that every idea is welcomed. Pick the solution(s) you think best solves the problem.
  • Test the solution: Implement the solution that was chosen and ensure everyone does their bit to roll things out. 
  • Analyse the results: Check how the solution is progressing at various intervals, with plans for who will be the point of contact and how to keep those on the ground-level engaged. Identify how successful the change has been.
  • Standardise: If the results were positive, adopt the solution throughout the business.
  • Repeat: Take a look at what else was on your list and repeat the above six steps.

 

How can I put Kaizen into practice?

Whether you implement it companywide, within teams or at a personal level, certain instances of Kaizen may need clear direction. If you’re putting it in place to benefit a team or the company, then it will require leadership and an understanding that company culture may shift because of the changes.
Building process and deployment flowcharts to visualise your current processes can help with this. This way, you can detect the more wasteful elements that don’t add any meaningful value to how processes are carried out. Use it as a chance to reflect on how things are going and what you need to do to make improvements going forward. It might be a difficult or touchy subject initially, but being critical of your processes is a large part of making the right changes.

As a small business, it’s a good idea to think small. Empower everyone on your team by allowing their voice to be heard. They may hit upon something big which plays a part in how things move forward.

Since Kaizen is inherently inclusive, your team may not be used to being given this kind of opportunity. Like we said earlier, it’s not about perfection. There’s bound to be a degree of trial and error when implementing proposed improvements. That means if something doesn’t work out, you should stress that blame isn’t to be pointed at anyone. Innovation doesn’t always work out the first time, it’s about iterations and improvements – two things that Kaizen views as crucial when it comes to change.

How is Kaizen different from Six Sigma?

Closely linked to Kaizen is Six Sigma, another branch of the Lean approach that has a greater focus on using statistical tools and techniques to eliminate redundancies and ineffective practices.

And while they’re both part of the same Lean family tree, the two approaches certainly differ. As well as foregoing the use of statistics, for the most part, Kaizen is much less of a set process when compared to Six Sigma. Rather, it’s more a system of beliefs that uses emotions and opinions to solve employee issues and improve the company as a whole.

Six Sigma, on the other hand, is far more methodical and data-driven, with a focus on specific products or services. As a result, it’s more concerned with measurable targets and achieving standardisation. To Six Sigma, perfection is achievable, and if not, then at the very least it strives for zero defects as often as possible. And in the Six Sigma framework, a defect is anything that does not meet customer expectations.  

Despite their differences, as well as the common belief that you should only use one or the other, Kaizen and Six Sigma are actually at their best when used together. When they complement each other, this hybrid system can reveal hitherto unknown problems with their own corresponding solutions in very little time.

When Kaizen is in place to take care of the working culture at large, combining it with Six Sigma’s focus on the statistical, analytical side of business improvement, it creates the perfect environment for optimal growth. Used in conjunction, employees managing different Six Sigma projects can also use Kaizen to avoid making poor decisions over the course of said projects.

When a balance between the two approaches is achieved using strict protocols and innovative ideas, then both Kaizen and Six Sigma can work in tandem to a high level of success. With Kaizen’s focus on incremental change and Six Sigma’s favouring of larger breakthroughs, a company can put itself on the path towards long-term financial gain. It’s only when either of the two has been incorrectly executed can they become contradictory.

Gazprom Energy is a leading and award-winning business energy supplier, helping thousands of small businesses manage their gas and electricity contracts. To find out more about what we can offer your business, visit the homepage or call us today on 0161 837 3395. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed within this article are those of our third-party content providers alone and do not represent those of Gazprom Energy. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. Gazprom Energy accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.


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