Kaizen – A Continuous Improvement Culture

Kaizen Japanese signs
What is Kaizen?

Kaizen is a Japanese word with the meaning of „continuous improvement“. It contains the two Japanese characters „kai“ which means „change“ and „zen“ which means „good“.

Therefore, a kaizen culture describes a company where everyone is involved and focused on the process of improving quality, productivity and customer satisfaction.
To achieve these goals, you need to follow a concept of small steps that will lead to large improvements, instead of quickly implemented changes.

Kaizen is a slow but continuous process, not only a way of work, but more like a way of thinking.

An important point of such a culture is the social capital. Kaizen doesn’t mean to teach how to work the best, Kaizen means to find the best ways in common again and again and then work with them.

Kaizen culture builds trust between the participants, empowers the workforce and provides transparency on all levels. The Kanban method enables the kaizen culture to find the best way of the workflow, communication and transparency, delivery time and predictability, in short: kaizen culture using the kanban method is the best way for continuous improvement.

Kaizen encourages all human beings to use their creative potential to solve problems. To profit from this capacity it is necessary to create conditions, which make the evolution of a kaizen culture possible.

Every participant has to examine his own work and quality, they should use their idle time to improve themselves and their work. Especially if regular things don’t go „very well“, everyone is supposed to look for small ways to improve their daily work. It’s important here, that the employees are able to decide about their tasks and work organisation.
The possibility to participate actively is a motivation to make one’s own decisions with the team in mind. This creates a natural feeling of responsibility which is basic for a process-oriented and systematic thinking in a team. Problems are solved within the team and by the team to keep up the workflow. The process of solving problems like this should work without fear and with the support of the management.

What would a kaizen culture look like?

The power in a kaizen culture are the humans. They are empowered to take action and swarm on problems. There should be a high social sensitivity.

“Investing in the connections among team members
both increases productivity and reduces risk.”
– Margaret Heffernan

So we can not “build” the perfect kaizen-team, we need to evolve it with changing the way of thinking and changing the culture for all members of the organisation.

The managers:

  • should tolerate small failures as long as they are made in the name of improvement
  • must enable Stop-the-Line behavior, to stop the entire process
  • encourage their team to swarm in order to resolve problems
  • have to raise the social capital in their teams

The teams:

  • have to work in a way as transparent as possible
  • should be able to trust the management
  • must work by their own and prioritize tasks
  • the team should help each other and collaborate
  • it’s important that the team interact with others, including stakeholders

What is the role of Kanban for the evolution of a Kaizen culture?

Kanban is a perfect forerunner to realize a kaizen culture in a company. The transparency of the process and tasks Kanban causes, makes the workflow visible for the team and the goal will become to keep up the workflow. WIP Limits show up the bottlenecks and problems in the whole process. The team starts to solve problems beyond their own work. This can support the formation of cross-functional teams.

Using WIP limits and service classes in the Kanban process, the employees are able to set priorities by themselves and are able to organize the whole project independently. This has a great impact on the cooperation in the teams and the whole company. The social capital grows, which is an essential element of the evolution of a kaizen culture.

In fact you can say, that it is smart to implement Kanban to your company. This will create the perfect basis for a Kaizen culture to evolve.

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