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KAIZEN is a Japanese word meaning gradual and orderly, continuous improvement. Adopting KAIZEN involves the creation of a culture of sustained continuous improvement focusing on eliminating waste in all systems and processes of an organization.

There are two essential elements that make up KAIZEN:

  • improvement/change for the better; and
  • ongoing/continuity.

A system/culture that lacks either of these is not true KAIZEN. Thus, maintaining existing ways of working (good though they may be) lacks the essential 'improvement' element, though it ensures continuity. Similarly, breakthrough improvement, not backed up by effective ongoing improvement, lacks the element of continuity. KAIZEN should contain both elements. KAIZEN is not consistent with the saying "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

KAIZEN achieves its effects by working through people. All are expected to be involved. Managers, for example, are expected to spend about half their time on improving what they and those for whom they are responsible do.

Traditionally, a Japanese Samurai carried seven tools into battle. After World War II the Japanese adopted quality as a philosophy for economic recovery and, in line with this traditional approach, sought seven tools to accomplish the economic rejuvenation. The seven tools chosen were:

  • Histograms
  • Cause and Effect Diagrams
  • Check Sheets
  • Pareto Diagrams
  • Graphs
  • Control Charts
  • Scatter Diagrams

These tools were largely developed as aids within the process of statistical quality control. All personnel are trained to use them - and the resulting charts and diagrams are displayed prominently.

KAIZEN recognises that improvements can be small or large. Many small improvements can make a big change - so KAIZEN works at a detailed level.

The principles/approach behind KAIZEN are:

  1. Discard conventional fixed ideas.
  2. Think of how to do it, not why it cannot be done.
  3. Do not make excuses. Start by questioning current practices.
  4. Do not seek perfection. Do it right away even if it will only achieve 50% of target.
  5. If you make a mistake, correct it right away.
  6. Throw wisdom at a problem, not money.
  7. Ask 'WHY?" five times and seek root causes.
  8. Seek the wisdom of ten people rather than the knowledge of one.
  9. Don't ask workers to leave their brains at the factory gate.

KAIZEN is thus a (relatively) low cost, simple, team-based approach. Team are trained in the techniques and tools of KAIZEN. They then brainstorm improvement ideas and vote on them for priority action. They then create an action/implementation plan which is submitted to management for approval. Assuming it is approved, the team then sets about implementation (with professional help if appropriate). The team then meets weekly to review progress, identify/overcome barriers, celebrate successes, and document the resulting changed processes.

See: http://www.kaizen-institute.com/

See: Ishikawa, K. (1982). Guide to Quality Control, Quality Resources, White Plains NY

See also Continuous Improvement

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