Get Kaizened: making ‘tomorrow’ better than ‘yesterday’

You may have heard before what Kaizen stands for. Moreover, if you own a company, you may have also realized that the days when a company was able to develop a single product and survive by its exploitation over the years are also gone. If the Japanese have taught us anything, it is that organizations must strive to learn through an ongoing and sustained self-analysis in order to achieve what they call continuous improvement.

Why is it important?

Unlike many other companies, Japanese organizations are reluctant to focus on short-term goals. Instead, they deliberately consider the long-run as an investment which allows them to develop key aspects within the company such as the installed capacity (technology) and the current processes. This way a higher value for the customers can be attained.

If we were to break down the word kaizen in order to understand the philosophy behind the concept, we should start by saying that the concept consists of two words: kai which means ‘change’ and zen which means ‘good’. Now, if you were to make a more western concept out of these two words it would be ‘continuous improvement’: an approach to make improvement by involving every player within an organization as a result of an ongoing work. Thus, kaizen goes beyond what we have always called ‘productivity improvement’ and suggests a process that, when implemented correctly, adds a more human approach to the employees which, as a consequence, creates a much better workplace where individuals feel motivated and end up developing a sense of both belonging and fulfillment.

And kaizen is good because…

As of 1986, when the western world was introduced to the concept of kaizen after noticing that Japanese companies were way more efficient, many western organizations started to simply adapt the philosophy to their corporate approaches just to find out in the end that it was a mistake. Implementing kaizen without any sense of direction may lead a company to become inefficient as it won’t be providing the expected results. For an effective implementation, a new approach must be developed and communicated to all so that every single effort to achieve and attain improvements is aligned with this new policy that can be summed up in two words: commitment and discipline. It is important to mention that, when implementing kaizen, every area of an organization must be involved: board, CEOs, managers, supervisors, operators… all of them must act coherently and as a cohesive unit, otherwise they might end up going rogue and negatively affecting what companies strive for. Establishing and agreeing upon a common objective, upon a new corporate culture, is the first thing to do, this way goals can not only be conceived but communicated effectively within an organization. Goals, as kaizen suggests, must not only be stretched but realistic, and should be constantly assessed by a group of people over time; issues, likewise, are to be evaluated by this group of people as well. Issues like how to improve the bottom line, how to lower the costs of operating the business, how to deal with low quality and unhappy customers, etc. are commonly the ones that end up becoming goals, or, better said, the ones that help a company to find out where to aim so that it can stay competitive in a marketplace.

And how can kaizen be implemented?

In order to effectively implement this philosophy it is important to understand that it is a two stages plan that affects not only a company but the mindset of its employees: first, a company should focus on developing strategies that strive to improve both the internal processes and its specific areas and, second, it should also focus on switching the current mindset and establishing a culture of continuous assessment by having all employees (regardless of their position) to constantly evaluate every aspect of their duties (and obviously have them think how to improve it and make it better).

innovation_ideas_box_david kiger_kaizen_logistics
Image courtesy of Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures at Flickr.com

Are there any steps that can be followed to implement it?

Since the concept suggests that every area should act according to this ‘continuous improvement’ policy, then the reasonable thing to do would be having a team formed by people from every area rather than having like-minded people. It is always in the best interest of a company to have a diverse team: having different minds looking at a specific issue helps. Once the team is assembled, there are some steps that can be typically followed:

1. Asses the current state (and also set the goals),
2. Identify and point out the wastes (and also develop a plan to face them),
3. Make the necessary changes (and the necessary improvements),
4. Asses the improvements (and get what didn’t work fixed),
5. Standardize the process (and analyze the upcoming results).

This type of cycle can be performed by bringing the scientific approach to making improvements possible, also known as the Plan – Do – Check – Act (PDCA) methodology. Here, companies can develop their own insights (Plan) on a specific issue and then change whatever must be changed to improve it (Do) so that they can evaluate whether it works better or not (Check) and, if so, replicate it on the different areas within the organization (Act).

Companies that manage to effectively apply and build the kaizen methodology within their corporate philosophy are able to create a huge long-term value and face the current challenges that keep most companies from achieving their goals.

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