What is Continuous Improvement (Kaizen)?

by Doanh Do

5th August 2017

Kaizen is a Lean manufacturing tool that improves quality, productivity, safety, and workplace culture. Kaizen focuses on applying small, daily changes that result in major improvements over time. Kaizen first surfaced during the effort to rebuild Japan after World War II. At the time, several U.S. business consultants collaborated with Japanese companies to improve manufacturing. The collaboration resulted in the development of several new management techniques, one of which was Kaizen.

Kaizen (改善) comes from two Japanese words: Kai (improvement) and Zen (good), which translates to “continuous improvement”. In business, Kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. Kaizen’s strength comes from having all workers participate and make suggestions to improve the business. The purpose of Kaizen goes beyond simple productivity improvement. When done correctly, the process humanizes the workplace, eliminates overly hard work, and teaches people how to spot and eliminate waste in business processes.

The Kaizen philosophy states that our way of life - be it our working life, our social life, our home life - deserves to be constantly improved. Kaizen is about achieving improvements by taking small steps instead of drastic, rigorous changes. Although improvements under Kaizen are small and incremental, the process brings about dramatic results over time. Additionally, Kaizen is a low-risk and an inexpensive approach. It involves process improvements that do not require a large capital investment. As a result, Kaizen encourages workers to experiment and try out new ideas. If an idea does not work, they can always revert the changes without incurring large costs.

Benefits of Kaizen

Beyond the obvious benefit of improving processes; Kaizen engenders teamwork and ownership. Teams take responsibility for their work and are able to make improvements to enhance their own working experience. Most people want to be successful and proud of the work that they do and Kaizen helps them to achieve this while benefitting the organization.

A Gallup poll of US workers in 2015 showed that just 32% of employees were engaged. A majority of employees (50.8%) were “not engaged”, while 17.2% were “actively disengaged”. One of the main benefits of Kaizen is getting employees actively involved and engaged with the company. Having more engaged workers leads to more efficient processes, lower turnover, and higher rates of innovation. Engaged employees feel that they have an impact on the company’s performance and are more likely to try out new ideas. Additionally, organizations with more engaged employees can achieve higher competitiveness, enhance customer satisfaction, and have an improvement culture of solving problems through teamwork.

The Kaizen Process

The continuous cycle of Kaizen activity has six phases:
1. Identify a problem or opportunity
2. Analyze the process
3. Develop an optimal solution
4. Implement the solution
5. Study the results and adjust
6. Standardize the solution

continuous improvement cycle

Figure 1.Continuous Improvement Cycle

Kaizen starts with a problem, more precisely the recognition that a problem exists and that there are opportunities for improvement. Once problems are identified, the organization needs to enlist the cross-functional personnel to understand the underlying cause of it. The proposed solution are then tested on a small-scale. Using data, the team makes adjustments to the solution. And finally, the results are spread across the organization and the solution is standardized.

Getting Started With Kaizen

As a Lean business practice, Kaizen succeeds when all employees look for areas to improve and provide suggestions based on their observations and experience. To facilitate this, management’s role is to communicate the need to change, demonstrate a personal commitment to process improvement, educate and train staff in Kaizen, and manage the improvement process. When first getting started with Kaizen, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Start with training: Everybody needs to know what Kaizen is and how it can benefit the workplace culture.

  • Support Kaizen from the top: Employees need to know that they will get support when they need it.

  • Get ideas flowing: Use Kaizen boards, quality circles, and suggestion boxes. Employees need a way to communicate effectively and document their ideas for improvement.

  • Keep ideas coming: Let employees implement their own suggestions when possible. This will encourage participation.

  • Remove barriers: Kaizen boards and software are especially useful here. They allow workers to post ideas, track their progress, and see the benefits of each improvement.

  • Measure impacts: By keeping track of the beneficial results from the kaizen process, the company is more likely to continue investing in it and sustaining it.

Kaizen is a long-term strategy and the goal is to develop the capabilities and confidence of workers. As a strategy, Kaizen works when employees at all levels of the company work together proactively to achieve regular, incremental improvements. In a sense, it combines the collective talents within a company to create a powerful engine for improvement.

By having the right system in place, management can help their Kaizen program gain momentum and succeed. Workers will gain a sense of ownership over their tasks and become more involved in every aspect of the business. This will ultimately lead to better processes, higher customer satisfaction, and a more profitable business.

Use The Lean Way to apply Kaizen and continuous improvement with your team. Get started with a free 14 day trial.


Doanh Do is graduate of UC Berkeley. He is a co-founder of Paramount Decisions, Inc. and The Lean Way, Inc. Through his research and software companies, Doanh's goal is to help the AEC industry be more innovative and lower the barrier to applying the best practices in Lean Construction. Paramount Decisions helps companies make better design decisions through Choosing By Advantages. The Lean Way helps companies start and sustain their lean and continuous improvement efforts.