Maximizing Efficiency: Understanding Kaizen

by Sean Ross

3 min read

People don’t commonly associate Buddhist principles with capitalist production processes, but that’s the exact cross-section where you’ll find the Japanese practice of Kaizen. Stated simply, Kaizen, from the Japanese words kai = “change” and zen = “good,” is the idea of getting better at getting better. Kaizen was one of the most important factors behind the striking rise of Japanese economic production between the 1970s and 1990s. In 2017, corporations around the world recognize Kaizen as a critical factor in long-term sustainable business success.

The Historical Roots of Kaizen

Kaizen is not a direct import from Buddhism but rather stems from several Buddhist principles that the people of Japan embodied culturally. Among these are the concepts of simplicity, an attention to small things instead of big things, and learning to not resist change. The term “kaizen” means roughly the same thing in Japan as “improvement” means in Canada. However, when taken to a business setting, Kaizen suddenly transforms into “continuous improvement” and is respected as a very powerful and successful procedural philosophy.

Masaaki Imai and the Toyota Production System

The business application of Kaizen spread throughout the West, and then the rest of the world, thanks to two marketing efforts: one intentional and one incidental. Japanese organizational theorist Masaaki Imai initially popularized the term Kaizen through his book “Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success” in 1986. He marketed the book as a guide for anyone, from professional managers to first-year business students, and relied heavily on corporate case studies to illustrate his major points. The second, and perhaps more influential, advertisement for Kaizen came from the Toyota Production System. When Toyota spread its wings to the United States and began out-competing American car manufacturers, who even enjoyed tariff protections, managers in the U.S. corporate world took notice. Kaizen is one of Toyota’s core values, and all of Toyota’s employees are educated and empowered to help promote small, continuous changes.

Kaizen in Action

Kaizen is both a philosophy and an action plan. Philosophically, it’s about creating a culture in which employees are actively engaged in designing and troubleshooting their processes, and it empowers all levels of the organization to experiment and think of positive change. As an action plan, Kaizen specifically focuses on small items and constant communication, with particular emphasis on plant-floor and customer-facing employees. When an employee makes an error, Kaizen identifies this error as an opportunity rather than a problem. Instead of shaming the employee and hiding the mistake, practitioners of Kaizen see a chance to find out what went wrong and institute corrective measures. This not only makes employees much more likely to report a problem, but it actively encourages those closest to the problem to think about ways to make things better. In short, Kaizen is about aligning all members in all departments to a continuous process of searching for ways to gradually change. Over the long haul, successive minor changes can add up to enormous benefits.

How You Can Implement Kaizen

If you’re interested in implementing Kaizen in your own business, remember that it may involve a significant adjustment as far as company culture. That’s why communication is key. It may mean targeting different employees for hire or instituting new orientation. If management can’t lead by example, Kaizen may be hard to instill in everyone. You want to focus most on the following areas:

  • Reinforce that problems are not negatives; they are opportunities.
  • Institute small meetings, known as “asa-ichi” meetings, to discuss quality issues and their causes.
  • Make sure employees feel empowered and have a process for suggestions for improvements.
  • Always solicit communication and feedback from all levels of the company.

If you are able to understand Kaizen and incorporate its philosophy, you may see many benefits. Of course, no single practice guarantees business results, but there is a reason so many companies put their faith in the Kaizen system.

References & Resources

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