Kanban Continuous Improvement
Author: Jeffrey Fink

Kaizen, Japanese for “Good Change” is a continuous improvement activity that leverages the cumulative effect of many small, incremental changes that results in significant company-wide improvements. The concept of Kaizen was formally introduced by Masaaki Imai, in the book “Kaizen, the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, 1986”.  Kaizen has been described as a “journey, not a destination” because the commitment to change and improve never ends!

In Kaizen programs, all functions can be improved, from production processes, work areas to the cash-flow cycle, to safety procedures, product quality, productivity, equipment reliability (preventative maintenance):  There is no limit to the processes and functions that can undergo improvement in a well-run Kaizen program.   It is a process that can motivate people from all levels of an organization to continually improve their environments.

Enduring and substantial positive results come from many small changes that accumulate over time.  In this way, small improvements on a continuous basis result in massive overall positive returns.  In fact, the modifications that accrue can be a significant component of a firm’s long-term competitive strategy.

How Does Kaizen Differ from Western Business Practices/Philosophies?

The traditional western management philosophy is one of ‘command and control’, where managers typically develop ideas and then promote and implement them.  It is very much a ‘top-down’ approach, where managers lead and employees are expected to follow.  In Kaizen environments, employees at all levels have new and expanded roles and are integral parts of the improvement process.  Specifically, employees develop, promote, and implement ideas and new processes.  The new role of management is to organize and facilitate the implementation of new ideas and processes.  Managers now review suggestions, assess their importance, and ensure that appropriate actions are taken.  In this environment, open lines of communication across all departments and functions are encouraged in order to achieve the full benefits of the Kaizen program.  Change and the concept of incremental improvement become a regular part of the business process.

What are the Benefits of Kaizen Programs?

  • Provides immediate, quantifiable results and improvements across all corporate functions
  • Improves competitiveness through improved business process efficiencies, lower unit costs and higher product/service quality
  • Improves customer service levels by providing higher quality products with lower faults
  • Identifies and solves the problems at their source and modifies standards to insure problem does not re-occur
  • Improves the problem-solving capabilities of the entire company, which is useful in many corporate decision-making situations
  • Improves overall company-wide safety; reduces incidence of accidents
  • Reduces product delivery times
  • Reduces waste in finished-goods and raw material inventory by making the production process more efficient through improved alignment between demand and supply
  • Increases productivity by making business processes and work-flows more efficient
  • Employee skills are used more broadly and efficiently
  • Higher employee morale and improved work/job-satisfaction due to employee involvement as stakeholders, lowers employee turnover, leading to improved employee retention and lower overall human resources-related costs

How to Set-Up a Kaizen Program

Starting and maintaining a successful Kaizen program involves significant changes to corporate culture, which is never an easy or quick process.  As with all major corporate-wide changes, in order to be successful, there needs to be support from the top-level of the organization “leading by example”, along with sufficient training and ongoing communication.  Also, suggestions must be implemented as quickly as possible.  It is important to make Kaizen employee participation rates a part of supervisors’ (not employees’) job-descriptions and job-performance/review processes.

The “PDCA” or “plan, do, check, act” procedure can provide a simple and effective approach for problem-solving and managing change that ensures that ideas and suggestions are suitably tested prior to committing to full implementation.  This is also called the Deming or Shewhart Cycle, after two of the analysts who helped to create and develop it.

Step #1: Plan.  In this step, the problem is first defined.  There are many ways to accomplish this, by the drill-down method, cause and effect diagrams (such as fish-bone method or 5-whys), or by brainstorming.  Once the problem is identified, the problem-process is mapped, or identified.

Step #2: Do.  Next, generate a list of possible solutions.  A pilot program can be initiated to test the new processes/procedures.  The person who initially made the suggestion should take the lead role in establishing the modification.  This empowers the employee and can bring about quicker acceptance of the new processes or procedures.  Note that in this step, the “do” means to ‘try and test’, not fully implement the change, which occurs in the “Act” phase.

Step #3: Check.  This is where measurement of how effective the pilot program is determined through the acquisition and gathering of relevant data, which can lead to further improvements in the process. Did the planned result occur?  Were there any unexpected problems/issues, or benefits?  If necessary, the “Do” and “Check” phases can be repeated in order to refine further.  Observation and data-gathering/recording are necessary to check on the preliminary results of the process change.  Visual, color-coded charts can be used to measure, monitor and communicate the progress.

Step #4: “Act”.  If it is determined that the benefits out-weigh the costs, then the new process or procedure can be fully implemented company-wide.  The new process needs to be documented.  Record what was done, why it was done, and the results of the new process, along with all of the new steps.  Then, this new information needs to be disseminated company-wide.  In this way, all levels of an organization will see the accumulated benefits of the Kaizen program.  Again, the company (and top management) needs to be fully committed and open to change in order for the benefits to accrue and improvement to occur.

What are some ways to collect suggestions?

Meetings: Invite people from various departments/functions.  Provide an overview of the continuous improvement program.  Important points to make are:

  • Kaizen will improve the entire company
  • To achieve this, it will require everyone’s input and effort
  • Every suggestion will be seriously considered; If not acted upon, the manager will provide an explanation of why-not
  • There are no negative repercussions to making a suggestions
  • The Kaizen program will be long-term

Allow enough time for questions and answers.  These meetings should be used to gather as many ideas as possible, not to discuss implementation, which comes later in the process.  Subsequent meetings can be used to introduce new employees to the Kaizen program, as well as to recognize previous contributions and provide metrics and updates of prior process improvements.

Kaizen Cards: Another way to generate suggestions is to use “Kaizen Cards” or suggestion forms.  They should include the following: date of the suggestion, name of the suggesting person, function / area / process that will be affected, along with the name of the manager who would need to approve the change, the problem that needs to be addressed, and a suggested solution or course of research.  Additional information can be added, based upon particular company requirements/specifications.  The location of the cards is important: They should be accessible and readily available in the common areas of the facility.  Having cards on the shop floor, where employees are actively engaged in their jobs, is convenient, as workers can write down ideas as they come up during the work-day.  Competitions can be set up among the various departments, with monthly or quarterly prizes to keep up interest and effort in the process.

Because the benefits of Kaizen accrue and compound over time, it is important to keep the process going by maintaining communication and by responding to all suggestions. Managers and supervisors should be resources and advocates for their teams.  The process can be further improved by management encouraging and rewarding valuable contributions.  In this way, employees see the impact of the positive incremental change, as well as see the importance of the Kaizen program.


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