A Kaizen Mindset and How to Always Improve

The kaizen concept was formalized in 1992 as part of the Toyota Production System, but it's roots go back much further. It's a Japanese word that simply means "continuous improvement" and has come to embody the whole idea of lean manufacturing in the US and other economies.

But the meaning of the term in real situations becomes a little more complex when we realize that for the production in many of today's organizations change is also a continuous process. In a consumer age where innovation and personalization are the driving influence in capturing consumer interest, it becomes more and more difficult to "continuously improve" on processes that may differ from quarter to quarter or even day to day.

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But when a lean culture becomes a part of your organization, rooting out waste can yield remarkable results. Kaizen is more than a term; it's a methodology. Applying it consistently means that inefficiency through waste across all processes is gradually trimmed away, leading inexorably to improvement in the value stream of every product. Production cycles are shortened and business strategy objectives more quickly and cheaply realized.

Continuous Improvement as a business model brings employees of all levels together in a proactive effort to instill incremental improvements into their own roles and performance. It creates a more powerful impetus for improving your processes as the collaborative input of talents throughout the company, from design to fulfillment.

Kaizen (Continous Improvement)

Kaizen (Continous Improvement)

Benefits of Kaizen

Kaizen is something that should be embedded into the culture. It's building the attitude of always improving every day. Kaizen events are often planned using value stream mapping which charts information as well as materials flow to target areas needing improvement.

Some common problems that can be solved with kaizen include:

  • Reducing changeover time equipment and processes.
  • Organizing the workspace for better clarity or efficiency.
  • Instituting work cells with one-piece flows.
  • Implementing pull systems for on-demand work only.
  • Improvements to equipment or process reliability.
  • Improving product design to be more manufacturable in-house.
  • Reducing the product development cycle.
  • Improving non-manufacturing processes such as procurement, materials staging, and order processing.

A Dual Nature

Continuous Improvement is both a philosophy and a strategic model.

As a plan of execution, it's about organizing events that use production resources to focus on improving a specific aspect within your organization. These events could involve top management, but are especially effective in that they also require, and emphasize, participation from the production employees on the plant floor who will carry out these events.

As a philosophy, it's about respect for people and developing a culture of efficiency where every employee is able to contribute suggestions or ask questions regarding the introduction of improvements to the process. When your organization has completely adopted lean methods, it becomes a habit to identify and address any point where waste exists.

Kaizen is an extension of the Standardized Work concept, which involves capturing and implementing the current best practices of any particular workflow. Continuous improvement goes beyond this to call for evolution of even the best practices. Standard Work policies become a dynamic, living process with demand for improvement ceaselessly driving it toward shorter cycles that provide greater value.

Daily use of Kaizen as a philosophy develops it as an action plan- and vice-versa.

The core principal of metal respect compels leaders to engage everyone in their improvement efforts, including staff, customers, suppliers, and partners. This belief assumes that everyone takes pride in good work and has an vital role to play in bringing improvement. The people doing the work are the ones who can create both large and small changes. Leaders try to make Continuous Improvement a part of everyone’s job, in order to provide quality goods and services at the lowest cost.


"Kaizen" is becoming a popular buzzword in organizations that have only begun considering lean methods. Actual use of Kaizen as a technique is increasingly considered an "event". Kaizen Events is the term given to a planning improvements focused on a specific goal or aspect of manufacturing. An event is the coordinated effort of a team devoted to solving a problem over a given time frame.

An event could be launched to achieve improvements on any business function, such as redesigning one station in an assembly line, increasing speed of machine setups, reducing distance traveled for raw goods supply, or any other area that it's felt could use further improvements to reduce waste of time, costs, or materials. In this sense, an event could apply just as well to non-manufacturing environments such as banks, hospitals, gold mines, or any organization where value is to be gained from reduction of processing.


Particularly in the early stages, events have similarities to a brainstorming experiment. A problem is posed and a possible plan for solution is developed. A team typically includes four to seven individuals with some knowledge or expertise directly relevant to the question at hand, led by a facilitator or consultant. They will devote all of their time over the ensuring three to five days until the identified problem has been solved or at least improved upon. Increasing production speed by only a few seconds at one point could bring you substantial gains over time, especially if the process is re-evaluated and improved a second or third time later on.

The event team usually involves a cross-functional collaboration of talents. For instance, your goal of improving lead times by 20 percent may call for a team composed of managers or supervisors from purchasing, warehouse, production, shipping, order fulfillment, and sales. The main idea is for the problem to be approached from several vital perspectives representing the major stakeholders. In this way, the impact of the solution on various related business aspects can be considered.

How to Execute a Kaizen Event?

Kaizen events are orchestrated for specific and significant improvements, not for vague experimentation and trouble-shooting. For each event, a mission statement is drafted that clearly outlines the issue and the expected result. As one example, the goal might be to reduce reworks on the night shift from three percent to under one percent.

Kaizen Event Process

Kaizen Event Process

Team members generally take the first step of drafting a document with all the essential information relating to the event, such as:

  • Stating the problem and the objective
  • Listing team members, leaders, and management directors
  • Resources that will be required, such as tools or software
  • Metrics or systems for gauging progress
  • Scheduled completion date
  • Actual results measured and documented
  • Signoffs from management or stakeholders

The team meets first to be familiarized with the issue addressed, receive any instructions for the plan of action and required criteria, formalize the statement, and begin brainstorming for ideas. They generally follow a Plan-Do-Check-Act framework, which is a sequence of steps for planning a solution, executing the plan, checking the results for effectiveness, and then putting the plan into action as a regular procedure. PDCA is an iterative cycle that's repeated until the original problem has met with significant improvements.


Plans start with a hypothesis of the root cause, circumstantial background, and possible, sustainable solutions to correct these issues. Teams collect their own data through their own review and observation of workflows, actions, and measurements. Visual observation can reveal many factors that aren't exposed by raw data and performance reports.


This involves designing an experiment that may correct the problem. This may be a very different way of approaching a task or establishing new business policies. Duties, tools, sequences, or personnel may be changed. It's necessary for the team to work with affected employees to ensure that the solution is carried out as designed in organized trial phases.


It's essential to verify the actual result of the hypothesis in real conditions. If the goal is to reduce time spent on a process, timing trials are run. If the goal is to reduce scrap material, actual quantities must be recorded both before and during trials that take place. Often several trials, and several refinements of the solution, must be taken before acceptable results are obtained. This part of the process also involves making note of what doesn't work so those elements can be reconsidered.


After the problem has been solved and improvement is realized, most teams will provide upper management with a report or presentation outlining the steps taken and the results achieved. This gathers leadership support of the changes implemented until they are standardized. This may also involve stating any follow-up issues that need to be addressed, such as quality checks or data collection.

Implementing the Solution

Once a plan of action has been demonstrated and proven, it must become standardized to have lasting benefits. Since employees will tend to fall back on the procedures they've become accustomed to, it may be necessary for teams to ensure that the changes they've introduced changes are being followed. Maximum improvements may not be achieved until the new procedures are practiced and acclimated into your workflow.

At times improvement events may result in reducing the amount of labor involved. This may lead to putting people out of work. It may or may not be economically feasible to keep employees in anticipation of growth. Though most companies will try to move affected employees to other duties, there is always the possibility of eliminating positions, especially during harsher economic times. Preserving jobs may also require that your lean manufacturing culture include opportunities for cross-training, or the creation of additional lean teams such as 5S (another lean methodology for optimizing workspaces).

It may also take a period of time before your company can establish the long-term financial benefits from changes. On-going adjustments can have a profound impact on company culture. It is not realistic to expect your employees to take part in events that may eliminate their own jobs.

Continuous Improvement as a philosophy is dependent on creating a company culture that makes employee effectiveness the focus of improvements. This philosophy as the driving force behind action plans is what makes continued improvement possible.

Author: Eric Raio

Eric Raio is one of the founders of Factory Solutions. When he isn't plotting new ways to create awesome software. He likes to geek out about flying drones and technology.

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