Understanding kaizen: A guide to continuous improvement in business

Sarah Laoyan contributor headshotSarah LaoyanOctober 29th, 20216 min read
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Summary

The core belief of kaizen is that life should be constantly improved so that we can continually lead more fulfilling lives. In a business context, this idea suggests that if small incremental improvements are made over time, they can lead to major changes in the long run.

Think about your daily life, whether that's work, school, home, or your social life. Are there any aspects of your life that can be improved? While you may be content with how your life is going, there are always aspects that can be improved. 

This is the heart of kaizen philosophy. The core belief of kaizen is that life should be constantly improved so that we can continually lead more fulfilling lives. This is how the business idea of continuous improvement developed. 

What is continuous improvement (kaizen)?

The word kaizen comes from two Japanese words: kai, which means improvement, and zen, which means good. Combined, the two words create the idea of continuous improvement. Kaizen is the process of continuously improving all aspects of a business, from strategic prioritizations to daily operations. The continuous improvement process suggests that if we make small, incremental improvements over time, these small improvements can lead to major changes in the long run. 

The kaizen process was popularized in the 1950s after World War II by Japanese manufacturers. The goal of kaizen is to continually improve processes so that any waste is eliminated. In this scenario, waste refers to any inefficient use of time or redundancy in processes. 

A famous example of the continuous improvement model is the Toyota manufacturing model. Toyota’s model focuses on making only “what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed.” Since then, it has been applied to many businesses, even outside manufacturing.

What is the continuous improvement process?

The goal of the continuous improvement process is to optimize for activities that generate value for customers while getting rid of any inefficiencies. Common in lean processes, there are three types of waste that the continuous improvement process aims to eliminate.

Types of waste in the continuous improvement process

Muda

The Japanese word muda translates to wastefulness or uselessness. In regards to the continuous improvement process, these types of waste prevent certain work processes from reaching operational excellence. 

There are two types of muda waste: Type 1 and Type 2.

  • Type 1: Processes that don't add value to customers, but are still necessary for the end customer. A good example of this would be a safety inspection. While it doesn't add any value to the end product, providing a safe product for your customers is important. 

  • Type 2: Processes that don't add value to customers and are not necessary for the end customer. These are often internal processes, such as documentation. These are processes that the kaizen method aims to reduce.

There are seven categories of waste that fall under muda Type 2. Those are:

  1. Transport: the excessive movement of product

  2. Inventory: excessive goods and raw materials

  3. Motion: excess movement of machine or people

  4. Waiting: the idle time between one step to the next

  5. Overproduction: producing too much of a product

  6. Overprocessing: adding too much to a product that doesn't provide value

  7. Defects: producing unusable products

Mura

The Japanese word mura means unevenness, or irregularity. This type of waste is one that can contribute to the creation of muda waste. To prevent mura from occurring, the goal is to have a balanced and streamlined process so that no one stage has a bottleneck. 

An assembly line is a simple example of mura. If one section of the assembly line is backed up, the team may produce too little or too much of a specific product to overcompensate for the bottleneck.

The Kanban methodology is a good way to minimize these bottlenecks from happening. In the Kanban process, you pull from one step to the next, so teams only use exactly what is needed.

Read: How to create and manage Kanban boards online with Asana

Muri

The Japanese word muri means overburdened, or beyond one's power. In terms of workload, muri indicates an unreasonable amount of work. In terms of machinery, muri can cause damage to machinery, leading to costly repairs. In terms of employees, muri can result in absenteeism, illness, and burnout. 

There are different strategies for how to create a culture of continuous improvement. Here are a few common methodologies used to implement continuous process improvements.

The Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Cycle

The PDCA cycle was introduced by Walter Shewart and further developed by W. Edwards Deming.

There are four main steps of the PDCA cycle:

  • ​Plan: Identify the main goal of this project and how you will measure success.

  • Do: Test out your plan to achieve the goal.

  • Check: Review the actions from the Do phase. Are things improving?

  • Act: Roll changes out to the full project, or if the test in the Do phase didn't work, make small changes until it does.

The framework is used to approach and resolve project management and process improvement problems. Because of the cyclical nature of this methodology, it's an easy way to continually implement changes.

Read: What is the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle?

Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a process improvement methodology that is often used in manufacturing. Six Sigma works by minimizing variability during the manufacturing process. This is achieved through rigorous quality assurance and quality control assessments. 

There are two main methodologies in Six Sigma: DMAIC and DMADV.

DMAIC

DMAIC has five phases:

  • Define the system

  • Measure key aspects of the current process and collect data

  • Analyze the data to verify cause and effect

  • Improve or optimize the current process based on data

  • Control the future state process from deviations

DMADV

DMADV is also known as Design for Six Sigma (DFSS). This method is used when establishing the creation process for a brand new product. Here are the five stages:

  • Define design goals with customer demands

  • Measure and identify product capabilities and production capabilities

  • Analyze to develop different design alternatives

  • Design an improved alternative based on analysis in previous step

  • Verify the design and set up testing pilots

The Agile Methodology

Agile is a project management framework that breaks down projects into smaller phases. Some forms of Agile are iterative, which allows for a culture of continuous improvement. In Agile, team members reflect back during every sprint cycle to reflect on what small changes could be made for the next sprint.

Read: The beginner's guide to Agile methodologies

Benefits of continuous improvement strategies

Allows for inexpensive and low-risk changes

In continuous improvement, changes are easy to make. The idea with continuous improvement is that you make small changes, and test to see if they work. If they don't, then your workflow isn't disrupted by making that small change. 

A good example of this would be for a change in an assembly line. The team can test out switching two steps that are not dependent on one another and see if that changes the speed of the production flow. If the production speed is slower, the team can easily revert back to the original process without changing the entire process. 

Empowers individuals to make changes

Continuous improvement empowers every team member to take ownership of their processes. Kaizen is best operated throughout the entire organization and engrained within the company culture. If something is not working for a team member, they can take ownership to make the changes needed to optimize their individual workflow and minimize limiting beliefs

Personalize processes by team

A given process can work for a group of team members, but what happens when you add people to the team? The original workflow might not work as well as it used to, but kaizen allows for teams to shift these processes in changing environments. 

A good example here would be scaling workflows from a small team to a larger team. A team might start tracking certain information in a spreadsheet when they’re only a team of two or three. But what happens when that team grows to a team of 20? That amount of people working in a spreadsheet can become unmanageable. The kaizen process allows for the team to experiment with the information workflow that works best for them as they continually grow. 

Fosters discovery and curiosity

When your company culture encourages team members to improve business processes in a way that works best for them, it encourages more discovery and curiosity within the entire company. This enables individuals to experiment without the fear of breaking processes or being judged for failure. If something doesn't work, things can just revert back to what they were previously.

Tips for implementing a continuous improvement model

If your team is not already using some form of a continuous improvement model, rolling out new processes can take some time. Here are a few tips for implementing this idea in your company. 

Start small

The goal of kaizen itself is to make small, incremental changes. Start working with a small portion of team members to see how any changes work. If it goes well, begin to test it out with more teams. This implementation process itself is the practice of kaizen.

Encourage leader to be open minded

Continuous improvement works especially well when individuals are encouraged by senior leaders. Prepare your leadership team by offering special training to encourage new ideas and removing any blockers that may be in a team member's path as they are trying to improve a workflow. 

Don't make perfection the goal

One of the hardest parts of using the continuous improvement model is striving towards perfection. This is an impossible feat, and the philosophy behind kaizen is to make small changes to be better than you were the day before. Focusing on perfection can lead your team to make changes that aren’t actually necessary. 

Manage continuous improvement with work management tools

Continuous improvement methodologies work best in iterative project management strategies such as Kanban and Agile. When partnered with work management tools, organizing work in one place can help your team implement the positive changes they need to succeed. 

Create Kanban boards with Asana

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