26 August 2022

Kaizen, also known as continuous improvement, is a long-term approach to work that systematically seeks to achieve small, incremental changes in processes in order to improve efficiency and quality.

Kaizen can be applied to any kind of work, but it is perhaps best known for being used in lean manufacturing and lean programming. If a work environment practices kaizen, continuous improvement is the responsibility of every worker, not just a selected few.

Kaizen can be roughly translated from Japanese to mean ‘good change.‘ The philosophy behind kaizen is often credited to Dr W. Edwards Deming. Dr Deming was invited by Japanese industrial leaders and engineers to help rebuild Japan after World War II. He was honoured for his contributions by Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers.

One version of the ten basic Kaizen principles is as follows (my comments are added in italics):

  1. Throw out all your old fixed ideas on how to do things. Start with a clean slate every day, don’t get stuck in your old assumptions.
  2. No blame – treat others as you want to be treated. Encourage and affirm others in the team including yourself.
  3. Think positive – don’t say can’t. Lean into grace – there is always a way forward.
  4. Don’t wait for perfection – 50% improvement now is fine. Don’t get stuck waiting for perfection, keep moving forward and over time results will come. A few mistakes show that you are taking risks and that’s okay.
  5. Correct mistakes as soon as they are found. Be willing to admit mistakes and fix them in a timely way. It keeps your clients happy, encourages feedback and makes a better product.
  6. Don’t substitute money for thinking – Creativity before Capital. When you have the money you may not be more creative. Limits are great for new ideas.
  7. Keep asking “why?” until you get to the root cause. Don’t settle for overly simplistic solutions, or you will be treating the fruit instead of the root.
  8. Better the wisdom of 5 people than the expertise of 1. Group wisdom will see through the simplistic answers – you can’t beat the wisdom of experience.
  9. Base decisions on data not opinions. Make sure you have real evidence not just hearsay or guesses – check out your hunches and feelings against reality.
  10. Improvement is not made from a conference room! Be out there among the people – staff and clients asking them where improvement can be made. Test theory in the real world.

Dr Deming was one of the key originators of these principles, and reading his original ideas is refreshing and somewhat surprising in their timelessness, bluntness and practicality – and also in their wide application to almost any kind of business enterprise. 

In his book Out of the Crisis, Dr Deming shared his philosophy of continuous improvement (again my comments are added in italics):

  1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business and to provide jobs. Have a clear philosophy – not just about money but about sustainability and job creation.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change. Just do it – keep revisiting.
  3. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place. Do it the right first time as much as possible.
  4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimise total cost. Move towards a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust. Use local firms where possible, and use organisations and people that fit well – the overall result will be lower cost.
  5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service to improve quality and productivity and thus constantly decrease costs. Be constantly aware of how processes and systems may be improved and write these things down.
  6. Institute training on the job. Give time to this – don’t rely on external training, learning on the job will give greater satisfaction to staff as their skills increase. Don’t expect them to ‘just know’.
  7. Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Be present and give and receive feedback on a regular basis.
  8. Drive out fear so that everyone may work effectively for the company. Be approachable, admit fault, be fair and empower others – it will win respect.
  9. Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales and production must work as a team to foresee problems of production and use of the product or service. Communicate with co-workers, and treat everyone as of equal value. It will encourage work satisfaction, and team cohesion and so honesty and creativity will increase.
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
    • Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute with leadership.
    • Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers and numerical goals. Instead substitute with leadership.
    • Encourage one another and accept mistakes as normal to learning and developing new, good things.
  11. Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality. Quality comes from focus and teamwork, not just pumping out work.
  12. Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objectives. Let people enjoy coming up with their own solutions, and taking responsibility for projects themselves.
  13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement. Encourage everyone to take time to ‘sharpen their saw.’
  14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job. Involve everyone, as much as possible in the wide view – talk about sales and marketing with engineering people, and help salespeople understand the technical challenges.

I like to review these steps periodically. Adding my own twist on the basic principles helps me stick with my “why” – the values that define my personal business philosophy.

When we start losing our “why” we start feeling uncomfortable in our work. Reviewing this helps us see where we are perhaps getting pulled off the track and what we have been neglecting. I can see a couple right now I need to work on. A great reality check!