Kaizen — what it is, how events work, and why it’s important for optimizing your business and your teams
As business teams have adopted more lean practices and processes, kaizen has also made the jump from manufacturing environments to offices. This Japanese business philosophy has helped world-leading companies like Toyota optimize their processes.
But kaizen offers tangible benefits to operations teams as well. To help you understand kaizen and how to use it to help your teams, this post will cover:
What is kaizen?
Kaizen is a business philosophy that focuses on continuous improvement across the entire organization. The kaizen model helps companies focus on gradually and consistently increasing efficiency and reducing waste within processes. To do this, kaizen encourages input from any employee — from the factory floor to the C-suite — at any time.
The kaizen method became popular in post-war Japan, at manufacturers like Toyota. Kaizen broadly means continuous improvement in Japanese. In the Toyota Production System, if a line worker sees an issue, they stop production and figure out a solution with their supervisor. The people who are involved in the daily work have the authority to make needed changes without formal approval from management. And they don’t need to go through long, drawn-out processes to enact change. This enables continuous improvement.
Traditionally, kaizen is a big part of lean project management in the manufacturing industry, but businesses in many other sectors are catching on to its effectiveness and implementing kaizen events.
A kaizen event is a three- to five-day team workshop in which employees, managers, and sometimes C-suite executives make an actionable plan to improve an existing process. Kaizen events often follow Gemba Walks or the discovery of an inefficiency. Gemba Walks are visits to workplaces where management teams can witness processes in order of operation, talk to employees, gather insights, and identify any issues.
Value stream mapping is another useful tool for finding inefficiencies and problems. Create a process and material flow chart with the information you gained during the Gemba Walk. This detailed visualization of your processes provides an overview of the steps involved and can help identify waste.
After you’ve identified problems or bottlenecks in a process, start making small, continuous improvements. During the kaizen event, team members collaborate and think of solutions. The ideal outcome of these events is an actionable plan that is ready for immediate implementation.
Types of kaizen events
As kaizen has been applied to operations and other business environments, the types of kaizen events have grown and evolved. Kaizen events can take many forms to best serve their business application. Here are some of the most common types of kaizen events and when to use them.
- Focused-improvement kaizen. A focused-improvement event is a kaizen event centered on a single, known issue. Prioritize your most important losses and develop solutions to eliminate them. The scope of focused-improvement kaizen events is one, achievable goal.
- Waste kaizen. This type of event focuses on eliminating waste in your processes, as opposed to improving systems that are currently working. There are eight wastes of lean that a waste kaizen event might aim to address.
- Error-proofing kaizen. Use this type of event to reduce human error by improving processes. This could be as simple as standardizing checklists. Or it might mean automating parts of a system.
- Lead-time kaizen. This kind of event is suitable when you realize one of your processes is taking too long. The event aims to reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a process, like the time from processing an order to the customer receiving their goods.
How to run a kaizen event
There is no single, definitive way to conduct a kaizen event. Business teams all over the world have shaped kaizen events to meet their own needs. If you’re just getting started with kaizen, the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) framework is common and often recommended.
The Gemba Walk, mapping your value stream, and identifying the problems in your processes are part of the planning stage in a PDCA cycle. Follow these steps to get started.
- Speak to employees. They’re the people who know the daily process better than anyone, so find out what problems or issues they're aware of. This often happens on a Gemba Walk.
- Define and analyze the problem. When you’ve decided which issue to tackle, break it down and find the bottleneck in the process. Value stream mapping is helpful here.
- Establish the metrics you’ll use to measure success. Without this data it’s impossible to analyze the results after you’ve tested the solution.
- Decide on a goal. You should have one goal that is achievable within the event time frame.
- Finalize the steps and processes that will help you achieve your goal. Work as a team to find solutions to the problem. There should be no limits on the kind of solutions encouraged. Allow employees to use their creativity. Choose one with potential to start with.
Run a small scale test of your chosen solution. Make sure every team member involved is aware of the change and let it run long enough to gather meaningful data and feedback.
Collect data from your test and — using the metrics you already selected — assess its success. Talk to employees and other team members to get their insights as well. They will often have input that’s not captured in measurable data.
4. Act or adjust
If the test was a success, implement your improved process company-wide or as a permanent update. However, if you found issues, or if the solution didn’t work, refine the process and run further tests or choose a different solution and try again.
This should be a cyclical process. The kaizen event might be a one-time, three-to-five day event but the process of improving never stops. To keep the continuous loop going, repeat the cycle. Find more processes to improve or try out other solutions.
Advantages of kaizen
Kaizen has a lot to offer any kind of business. More organizations are adopting kaizen to optimize their workflows, reduce waste, and remain competitive. Here are some of the biggest benefits.
- Eases change. When organizations make sweeping changes, getting staff on board can be tough. With kaizen, small, ongoing changes are a gentler approach, so employees are more likely to adopt changes.
- Optimizes processes and resources. Kaizen reduces waste and errors in your processes. With fewer errors, you use fewer resources conducting inspections or correcting mistakes.
- Encourages employee engagement. One of the key principles of kaizen is that employees have a stake in the organization. This accountability increases employee motivation. Employees taking responsibility for improving processes gives them a purpose. And engaged, accountable employees are more likely to stick around.
- Strengthens teams. The collaboration and accountability of kaizen boosts teamwork, because employees are an active part of process improvement and are working together on a shared goal.
Examples of kaizen for business
Many companies have successfully implemented kaizen. Let’s look at some examples.
Ed Catmull, co-found of Pixar, has spoken about his inspiration from Japanese lean manufacturing processes. The lessons he learned from an engaged workforce creatively solving problems at companies like Toyota is evident in Pixar’s processes.
One example of kaizen at Pixar is the Brain Trust. They’re a group of creative leaders who get together to collaborate, give honest opinions, and find problems within new movies. With a focus on candor and empathy, Pixar’s Brain Trust roots out problems in the creative process. Just like with kaizen in other industries, everyone is involved and has the power to make suggestions.
The Brain Trust is a big part of the Pixar process ever since it turned around Toy Story 2. What was supposed to be a straight-to-video release, became a critical and commercial success. Now the Brain Trust gets together for all Pixar movies to identify issues in the process and suggest solutions.
Nestlé uses kaizen and lean processes to reduce waste in its factories. For example, Nestlé leadership did value stream mapping at a new bottling plant to find waste. This resulted in more efficient processes at the factory.
Nestlé has also used kaizen to change the company culture. Executives demonstrate the importance of kaizen and encourage employees to engage with the improvement process. Employees are empowered to make improvements and use the best tools and methods available.
Getting started with kaizen
Kaizen allows organizations to make small, iterative changes for continuous improvement. It does this by encouraging collaborative and creative problem solving. The result is streamlined processes, increased efficiency, and less waste. And on top of all that it gives your employees accountability, purpose, and a stake in the organization's success.
A good place to get started with kaizen is by analyzing current processes. Conduct Gemba Walks, analyze data, and talk with employees to identify any issues or loss in your systems. When you’ve compiled your list of issues, you can find the right kind of kaizen event for your needs.
Adobe Workfront is the solution more businesses use to optimize lean processes like kaizen in their workspaces. Workfront helps organize feedback and insights, define your solutions, share your plans across the organization, and provide visibility to get the work done.
Take a free product tour or watch the overview video to see how Adobe Workfront can help your business team continuously improve.