Many methods from quality management find their origin in Japanese philosophies: so does the Kaizen principle. What sounds at first like a beautifully designed garden with bonsai trees is actually a philosophy from which various practical methods for QM have emerged. In this article you will read what Kaizen means, how the philosophy came into being and which QM methods have emerged from it. You will notice that the Kaizen principle has a few years under its belt – but is by no means dusty.
Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy of life and work that centers on the pursuit of continuous improvement. The term is made up of the parts Kai (change, transformation) and Zen (for the better). What is meant is not a sudden improvement through innovation, but the step-by-step optimization of existing products and processes – if we assume an economic context. This does not always have to be a visible product or process improvement; it can also be small things that have a rather unnoticed effect in the end. The result of these improvements is economic success, which also brings high customer satisfaction through high quality. You can also hear what is behind Kaizen explained directly by the man who started it all:
In the video we come across a name: Masaaki Imai. Born in Tokyo in the 1930s, he later worked as a management consultant and labor theorist. In 1985, he founded his own institute, the Kaizen Institute Consulting Group (KICG). In 1986, he published the book “Kaizen: The Key to Japanese Competitive Success,” in which he draws attention to the Kaizen principle.
The title of the book contains the first clue as to why Imai was so intensely involved with Kaizen: the success of the Japanese. To understand the background, however, we need to start a bit earlier. The year is 1945, and with it the end of World War II. The USA has defeated Japan. The country is economically devastated. Toyota, one of the largest car manufacturers, is also in crisis and plans to lay off a quarter of its workforce. However, the new labor laws introduced by the American occupation and the formation of unions stand in the way. So in Toyota’s case, the unions negotiate a deal: employees are promised lifetime employment with the company, pay tied to length of service, and a bonus payment based on company profits. Even if this deal is of little use to the laid-off employees, it continues to shape the Japanese automotive industry to this day.
From that point on, human capital had to be profitable in the long term, which is why the skills of employees should be continuously improved and their experience utilized. Masaaki Imai also learned from this history and thus from the Americans. The Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement was born.
The Kaizen principle also found its way into the Western economy. Better known under the term continual improvement process (CIP), the focus in Europe is primarily on increasing quality and reducing costs. The continuous improvement process is therefore an integral part of quality management. In contrast to the Western definition of the term, the Japanese origin of it is somewhat broader: here, it is fundamentally about constantly questioning assumptions and thereby generating the greatest customer welfare.
Kaizen is a philosophy that – although it originated in the automotive industry – has revolutionized the way many companies think and act. In order to use the Kaizen principle successfully in companies, top management must introduce the Kaizen principle, drive its implementation and monitor it. Every employee then has the task of critically questioning the activities and workplace design and thus continuously improving their own working methods. The motto of the principle is “No day without improvement”.
In order to align oneself with the five fundamentals in everyday work, various methods have been collected under the term Kaizen. These are an essential aid when it comes to the question of what can be improved and also how. In addition, the methods are very helpful in analyzing and mapping processes. It is important that the methods are applied regularly – and that everyone is familiar with them:
The methods can basically be applied to all possible processes in the company. For example, aspects such as workplace organization, adherence to deadlines in individual processes, transport routes in logistics, the organization and quantity of inventories, induction of new employees or the flow of information between departments could offer potential for improvement.
But what is the difference between Kaizen and other management methods such as Total Quality Management (TQM)? Basically, it is the human factor. While TQM looks for greater optimization potential in the sense of customer orientation, Kaizen relies on the individual: daily, small improvements of one or each make the difference. This principle assumes that management is aware of its leadership responsibility and also of its mission to empower the workforce. The goal is to foster the problem-solving potential of employees so that ultimately, even in work processes that are often invisible to top management, small changes can promote the economic success of the company. Kaizen recognizes that this contribution can only be made by the workforce.
As indicated at the beginning, the Kaizen principle has been around for some time – but is far from being outdated. The focus on human capital ultimately led to an essential insight that is still of great importance today: potential for improvement can be drawn from problems, errors or work processes that are not optimally designed. In the spirit of Kaizen, everyone should offer constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement. Ultimately, it is the experience of the employees that brings the company forward in economic terms and increases customer welfare and quality. Criticism is essential in order to improve things. In the end, everyone is sure to find one or two aspects of his or her daily work that can be improved – even when many things are already going really well.