One of the mostly well-known and widely used philosophies of continual improvement originated in Japan. It is known by the name, kaizen, which translates approximately to “good change”. Kaizen has been employed in a wide range of industries – healthcare, banking, psychotherapy, government, and many others. In business, kaizen typically refers to activities that continually improve all business functions and involve all employees.
Kaizen is frequently used to optimize purchasing, logistics, and supply chain processes, and has been employed in lean manufacturing processes to help eliminate waste. Kaizen was first used by Japanese businesses following World War II, and has since spread throughout the world and been implemented in environments outside of business and productivity.
Kaizen places a strong emphasis on employee feedback, encouraging employees at every level to apply the scientific method in learning how to spot and eliminate waste in business processes. Kaizen can be applied in a very small, personalized way, or it can apply to larger processes that involve groups of employees. In a very general way, the Kaizen methodology can be understood as:
- Discovering opportunities for small adjustments based on process data and customer feedback
- Implementing these small changes incrementally
- Monitoring the results of each individual adjustment for a certain period of time
- Using the new data to make adjustments
- Defining the results of successful adjustments as standards, and using these standards as baselines for additional improvements
- Repeating this cycle indefinitely
The kaizen philosophy aims to improve process efficiency, quality, and safety by making it easier for employees to do their jobs well and with confidence – rather than expecting them to work harder through incentives or fear of replacement.
Improvements made using the kaizen philosophy are typically on a much smaller scale than those found in the “command and control” improvement programs popularized in the mid-twentieth century.
This system of incrementally improving operations is also known the Shewhart Cycle, Deming Cycle, or PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act).
Similar ideas are investigated in the realms of Organizational Development (OD) or Business Process Improvement (BPI). The general intent of all of these philosophies is the same: to maximize the value of all available material, personal, and intellectual assets and to improve business processes by making use of resources that are already available.
Like the methods outlined above, other popular methods like Six Sigma, Lean, and Total Quality Management emphasize employee involvement and collaboration, standardizing processes, and reducing variations, defects and cycle times.