Kaizen, a Japanese word that means “improvement,” was once a little-known methodology used only in Japan. Today, however, it is used in businesses around the world to reduce waste, improve business performance, and more.
This concept has also become a foundational principle within other widely used methodologies, such as lean, which makes kaizen one of the most useful concepts in the business world.
Let’s learn what kaizen is, why it matters, and how it can be applied to fuel success in your business.
What Is Kaizen?
Kaizen, as mentioned, is a Japanese term that means “improvement.”
In a business context, it refers to the idea of continual improvement – ongoing incremental changes designed to enhance processes and performance.
While kaizen first became widely examined as part of The Toyota Way, Toyota’s post-WWII manufacturing method, its universality has made it applicable to countless other businesses, business areas, and contexts.
Kaizen, for instance, has been applied to:
- Lean thinking
- Business management
- Six Sigma
- The workplace
While kaizen technically means “improvement,” the concept as it is used focuses on continual improvement, as noted.
Practically speaking, this means embedding incremental improvements by:
- Identifying and improving problems as they arise
- Developing systemic solutions to organization-wide issues
- Applying changes in one area to other areas of the business
- Creating a culture that values continual improvement
Ultimately, kaizen is designed to make small changes and improvements over the course of time, rather than implementing large-scale radical changes.
The Benefits of Continuous Incremental Change vs. Radical Change
Change, such as organizational change, can be effected in a number of ways.
When examining business changes, two of the most commonly contrasted examples are “big bang” change, or radical change, and continuous incremental change.
Neither is better than the other – instead, each has its own specific use case, benefits, and drawbacks. When attempting to choose an approach to any type of change in business, therefore, it is best to examine the scenario in question, then discover the type of change that is most suitable.
Radical “big bang” change:
- Requires larger investments
- Can be riskier, since it involves greater commitment, resources, and change
- Often focuses on business transformation or organizational change, rather than the optimization of existing processes
- Is useful in circumstances that require rapid shifts, such as emergency situations or investments in innovation
Continuous improvement, on the other hand:
- Makes progress through incremental changes
- Requires fewer resources to enact change
- Has less of an immediate impact, so there is lower risk of negative impacts, either financial or human-centered
- Is useful for long-term adjustments, such as business process optimization or product improvement
In short, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive – both can be applied to improve business performance.
To determine which approach is best, assess:
- The circumstances driving the change
- How quickly the change needs to occur
- Whether the change involves a fundamental redesign of a process or whether the change is focused on optimization
- The business impact of each approach to change
Importantly, there is also a “spectrum” between incremental change and radical change. In some cases, it may be easiest and best to choose a change management strategy that falls somewhere between continuous improvement and “big bang” change.
For instance if an organization is adopting new software, this approach will naturally require fundamental changes to workflows, business processes, and the workplace.
Yet to minimize resistance from employees, managers may choose an approach that is slower and has less of a drastic impact on employee workflows.
The ideal outcome: less resistance and more control over the adoption process.
How to Use the Principles of Kaizen to Boost Agility and Performance
One reason why kaizen has become so popular is because ongoing optimization should become a key pillar of every business.
By systematizing this process and its key principles, business leaders and managers can boost organizational effectiveness, agility, and profitability.
Here are a few tips for anyone who wants to implement kaizen-based ideas into their business:
- Study business methodologies that have been built upon kaizen, such as lean and Six Sigma
- Understand the benefits of this approach and influence decision-makers by making a business case for the value of kaizen
- Determine the easiest, simplest way to begin a small-scale deployment of kaizen within the organization
- Develop and implement an approach that is data-driven and results-focused
- Adopt the principles of kaizen not only in the business, but in the workplace culture
It is worth noting that kaizen and agile thinking are different. While the principles of kaizen can certainly improve an organizations ability to evolve over time, agile is a methodology in its own right. The focus is on concepts such as responsiveness, user needs, and collaboration. Yet process improvement methodologies, such as kaizen, also emphasize the need to stay modern, tackle problems, and respond to change. Though the approach takes a long-term view and prefers incremental change, it also results in business processes that respond to real-world conditions and stay relevant.