What is it?

Kaizen is a philosophy of customer-driven improvement. Its aim is to create a culture of continuous quality, cost and delivery (QCD) improvement across the value chain.

Kaizen is based on three areas of improvement: housekeeping; waste elimination; and standardisation. In contrast to top-down approaches to driving improvements, like business process re-engineering, kaizen democratises continuous improvement through the principle that the person performing the operation is most knowledgeable about it and, therefore, best qualified to improve it.

Everyone in the business is expected to be on the lookout for opportunities to eliminate waste in their workplaces and to implement them with their co-workers. Waste includes excessive effort ('muri') and excessive process ('mura') – for example defects, over-engineering and over-stocking.

A business's strategy should champion the values and behaviours expected of all employees in relation to kaizen and provide guidance for employees on what is expected of them personally. Leaders across the business should cultivate participation in kaizen activities and be seen themselves to engage in kaizen activities. Individuals and teams should be rewarded for their contributions and results celebrated.

A kaizen activity typically consists of the following steps:

  • Standardise an operation or activity
  • Measure the operation
  • Compare measurements against requirements
  • Innovate to meet requirements and increase productivity
  • Standardise the new, improved operation
  • Repeat on a continuous basis.

What benefits does kaizen provide?

Kaizen's focus on housekeeping aims to enhance an employee's workplace (“gemba”) by continuously improving cleanliness, ergonomics and safety, which in turn should improve morale and motivation.

It eliminates waste by minimising, for example, time wasted retrieving tools; fatigue; injury caused by poor workspace ergonomics; the number of human operations needed to perform a process.

Standardisation provides a standard against which operations can be compared. Deviations from standards highlight the need for remedial action (kaizen) or to revise the standard. Standards are also key to knowledge management: they are a store of best practice, provide learning material for newcomers, and are the basis for performance management and performance improvement.

Implementing kaizen? Questions to consider:

  • Does strategy encourage buy-in from all employees and empower them to experiment in their workplace to improve operations?
  • What motivating factors need to be implemented to encourage employees' participation in improvement activities on an ongoing basis?
  • What training is needed to ensure all employees understand the company's approach to continuous improvement?
  • What facilitation is needed to ensure improvement is ongoing, e.g. quality circles?
Actions to take / Dos Actions to avoid / Don'ts
  • Ensure management is seen to be enacting kaizen in its workspaces.
  • Make kaizen a strategy.
  • Provide a budget for kaizen activity.
  • Measure the effectiveness of kaizens.
  • Celebrate small improvements.
  • Align recognition and award frameworks to the business' kaizen philosophy.
  • Empower employees to implement kaizens autonomously.
  • Train all employees in the business' kaizen philosophy.
  • Compile baseline data to enable future comparison.
  • Don't try to exert management control over kaizen activities.
  • Avoid bureaucracy in kaizen activities.
  • Don't tie kaizen to short term KPIs.
Related and similar practices to consider Further resources
  • 5S
  • 7 wastes (muda)
  • Just in Time
  • Mistake proofing (Poka yoke)
  • Single Minute Exchange of Dyes (SMED)