Matt Hrivnak

Kaizen: There's always another future state


What is Kaizen?  Many people that are new to Lean Manufacturing will at some point end up saying, “Kaizen?  What is Kaizen?  What do you mean by Kaizen?  What does Kaizen do?”  Several terms and definitions come to mind when talking about Kaizen.

On page 24 of The Toyota Way, Liker comments, “Kaizen is a total philosophy that strives for perfection and sustains TPS on a daily basis.”

Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning “Change for the better” or “improvement”.  It is most commonly translated into English as “Continuous Improvement”.  Kaizen is one of the forerunners in Lean thinking and requires discipline and constant re-evaluation.  It works on the basis that nothing can ever become perfect.  There is always something that can be improved.

Kaizen on a company scale can mean several things.  As part of a continuous improvement culture, most companies hold what are called Kaizen Events.  These are generally an activity that remove people from their daily tasks and place them on a team, to accomplish a goal within three to five days.  These are highly targeted projects with achievable results, such as moving machines so that they can work closer to one another for continuous flow, or designing and implementing a new queuing system for a specific purpose, or a SMED event (What is SMED?), etc.  No matter what the goal is, the process is relatively the same:  Plan, Do, Check, Act.

Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) was developed by W. Edwards Deming and introduced in Japan in the 1950s.  It is based on the Scientific Method and is a precursor to Six Sigma’s DMAIC process (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, & Control).  This is how PDCA breaks down:

  • Plan – Develop a sound, well thought out goal (that can be achieved with moderate effort) and how to achieve it.
  • Do – Implement the ideas and/or changes needed to achieve the goal, including training.
  • Check – Review what you’ve done; be critical, but not negative.
  • Act – Depending on how the Check step went, sustain these results or perform the whole PDCA cycle over again.

You can see that this is pure continuous improvement as the cycle can be completed over and over again.  In the Toyota Production System, they have slightly changed this language to be Plan, Try, Reflect, and Standardize.  Different verbiage, but same expectations of process and results.

Typically, most Lean training and resources define two types of Kaizen:  System or Flow Kaizen and Process Kaizen

A System or Flow Kaizen deals with an entire value stream being evaluated for opportunities of improvements and will usually include action from several levels of management. 

A Process Kaizen is a concentrated improvement of a single process (or groups of the same type of process).  This type of Kaizen will usually include a cross functional team dedicated to improving that individual process.

Both of these types of Kaizen are abundant in any successful Lean enterprise, and are at the very heart of those organizations.  Working within a company that needs help implementing Lean can begin to wear on your mind, especially if you are the agent of change.  For my entire professional career I’ve had to take on this role.  You push and push everyday for changes because you can see the waste sitting all around the plant and office; in stacks of wasted inventory and DMR’d materials to frivolous steps in product development processes.  It’s tough to keep a positive attitude. 

Over time I’ve learned to incorporate the idea of Kaizen into everything that I do.  I make it a habit to say this word to myself over and over again at different times during the day.  While at work, it keeps me in the moment and opens my mind to thinking that everything can be made better if we just apply ourselves a little bit more.  Now, I tend to Implement Then Perfect which is a good, offset definition (sort of) of Kaizen, where as early on in my career I would spend too much time pondering possibilities instead of just doing.  This creates better outcomes and makes you think on a Results Driven basis, which is really the way you want to think – you will constantly grow and improve – just like a company that is maintaining a strong Kaizen mentality.

On a personal level, use Kaizen to improve you life and it will work its way into your professional career.  Incorporate it into your daily life with exercise, eating habits, vices, etc.  If you want to start working out, start small and build from there – add a little bit everyday.  That’s small, incremental improvements that work.  If you eat too much, try to eat 1 less bite at 1 meal every other day, and eventually move up to 1 bite for every meal, everyday.  If you smoke and want to quit, cut back slowly and your body will respond favorably.  These methods work for you and the same type of stepwise improvements drive positive changes in your company.

If you know someone who claims to be perfect – they’re not.  Even a lot of the most successful people will tell you that they are not perfect and that that belief is what got them to where they are today – and it keeps them there.  You maybe thinking:  “Won’t that thinking just make me depressed?”  The truth is, no, it won’t.  Once you allow yourself to see the flaws that are holding you back, you will be much more likely to overcome them.  A good motto that I try to live by is:  Always be happy, but never be satisfied.  That is the essence of Kaizen.  That will bring continuous improvement to your life.  That is Kaizen.

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Comments (0) Posted by matt on Wednesday, April 9th, 2008


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