Since the consolidation of the Japanese economy, many questions have been raised about the models and practices. Kaizen is one of the many principles applied to this economic rebirth. . The need to build Japan’s financial and productive foundations from the beginning implied an integration of high, middle and low profiles, i.e., all with equal commitment to meet the new challenges that arose day by day.

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What is Kaizen?

The word Kaizen is a contraction of two Japanese terms:
Kai – change
Zen – Better

Kaizen is a process of continuous evolution based on small improvements that are repeated every day. For this to work, every team member must participate and contribute ideas for change. The idea is to focus every day on eliminating problems and optimizing work processes. Thus, it is a gentle and progressive method, as opposed to the notions of “disruption” or “revolution,” which imply more brutal changes.

But more than a management method, Kaizen is above all a state of mind. Any project can be viewed as “a journey of a thousand miles.” “A very long distance that can be daunting if you want to go too fast, but just break it down into small steps to cover it without too much difficulty and reach the final destination. With this system, you move slowly but surely.

Why choose to go slowly?

Because small repeated changes are more effective than a single radical change. Our brain is wary of sudden changes that it interprets as potential dangers and rejects them. So, in order to evolve, it is preferable to break down an ambitious goal into small, easy-to-achieve tasks that are less likely to trigger our famous resistance to change and may even, on the contrary, inspire pride, pleasure and encouragement.

Let’s take the example of someone who wants to start running after years of not playing any sport. Imagine what would happen if you started wanting to run a marathon from day one? You would expose yourself to a lot of suffering because of a bad result and you would get discouraged. On the other hand, if you set yourself a slightly more ambitious goal each day than the day before, you’ll have an easier time running a marathon after a few months.

A bit of history

Kaizen originated in Japan in the 1950s to enable the rebuilding of Japanese industry after the war. It’s specifically at Toyota where the approach was started by Taiichi Ohno as part of lean management, a more global principle that aims to increase the quality of a company’s production through a process of continuous improvement.

Masaaki Imai is the man who made the Kaizen system famous in the West. Born in 1932, he worked at the Japan Productivity Center in the 1950s, a center created to improve Japanese productivity after the war. It was during this activity that he met Taiichi Ono in the 1960s. Later, in 1985, he founded the Kaizen Institute to help companies adopt the Kaizen method, as well as all the tools now known as lean management.

The main kaizen principles

In his books, Masaaki Imai lays out some essential principles to adopt when implementing a kaizen system:

  • Constantly question: even if something works, always try to improve it. This is the only way to stay competitive.
  • Don’t strive for perfection, but for continuous improvement. Perfection will be achieved by repeating small improvements on a daily basis.
  • Identify the root cause of problems to solve them in the long run. Because fixing the symptoms of a problem without looking for its source exposes you to facing the problem again.
  • Solve problems without waiting: it is very important to solve problems as soon as they arise and before they become more complicated and cost in time and energy to solve.
  • Prioritize changes that need to be implemented: it is best to focus on developments that are easy, fast, and inexpensive to implement.
  • In a team, involve all members in the search for solutions: each person, whatever their level of hierarchy, should be able to express themselves, propose ideas, participate and adhere to the proposed changes.

5 easy-to-apply Kaizen techniques

The Kaizen system relies on several methods and techniques to achieve its goal of continuous improvement. They are usually techniques that emphasize iteration, visual management, and collaboration.

1 – The 5S method

The purpose of this method is to improve our workspace and well-being (or that of our team) to gain efficiency, waste less time and energy, reduce the risk of accidents, and improve the final quality of production.

The 5 S’s represent 5 Japanese words:

Seiri: clear out, lighten the work space.
Seiton: tidy up, optimize the work space
Seiso: to clean the work space
Seiketsu: to put in order, to avoid the appearance of dirt and clutter
Shitsuke: to be strict, encourage self-discipline.

2 – The PDCA cycle or Deming’s wheel

This is a four-step plan that allows us to quickly test new products or processes and adjust them until we get the desired result, all in a short time. To do this, we combine these four actions:

Plan: planification
Do: apply
Check: to verify
Act: Adjust

This forms a virtuous cycle of initiating many changes by verifying that they have had a positive impact and adapting to the changes. This way of operating is found throughout the agile approach.

3 – The 5 Whys method

This method responds to one of the main principles of the Kaizen method according to Masaaki Imai: going back to the origin of problems to solve them in a sustainable way. To do this, we ask ourselves 5 times “why?

Example: my website is lagging behind.
Why? Because one of the participants did not respect the schedule.
Why? Because he lacked raw materials.
Why? Because they were not delivered on time.
Why? Because the order was placed too late.
Why was the order placed too late? Because the purchasing manager was absent and was not replaced.

The person who did not meet the schedule is not, in fact, responsible for the delay, but the lack of manpower is the original cause of the delay.

4 – Retrospectives

Rituals such as stand-up, borrowed from the agile approach, are often used in Kaizen systems. This is a ritual during which teams gather standing in a circle to review work in progress, using post-it notes to display each member’s tasks. Each team member takes turns expressing what they are working on, their successes but also the problems they are facing so that the whole team can solve them.

5 – Kanban

This visual method of flow management helps reduce production time and improve team responsiveness. It’s a visual, easy-to-understand, just-in-time method: information is provided to team members at the right time so they aren’t overloaded with unnecessary information.

Kaizen In business, two principles to respect

The Kaizen method must not become a means of putting pressure on teams, otherwise it loses all its meaning. In order for it to be applied effectively, respecting the well-being of workers, it is necessary to respect some fundamental principles.

Involve everyone

Changes must be made by all employees of the company, regardless of their hierarchical level. This inclusion of everyone in the change process is one of the essential principles of Kaizen. Everyone must contribute ideas, agree with the proposed changes, and participate in them. This requires respect, trust and openness on the part of leaders.

The implementation of a motivational program

The success of the company is the success of its employees. It is important to demonstrate this by giving them the recognition they deserve and rewarding each team member with a motivational program. This program can take many forms, the main thing being that it is fair and equitable.

Respect for these fundamental principles will allow the implementation of a continuous improvement system to optimize productivity, product or service quality, all in pleasant working conditions that promote real and sincere employee involvement.


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