If you are in lean, you surely have heard of kaizen, and its English translation, continuous improvement process (CIP). It is one of the fundamental parts of lean. Kaizen generally means to improve, and in lean in particular, it means to continue improving forever. Pretty much all companies that haven’t gone bankrupt do this, often without using the word kaizen. You need to continuously improve in order to survive the harsh realities of competition.
Kaizen is Japanese for “improvement” or “betterment.” The word itself does not say anything about this being a continuous or repeating process, and in normal Japanese it could be only a single improvement. However, in Japanese business ethics, the repetitive process is pretty much always implied. The word kaizen consists of two Japanese characters: 改善. The first one 改 means “reformation, change, inspection, search.” The second means “virtuous or good.” Overall, it is improvement.
The Basic Idea
You are probably familiar with the basic idea of kaizen: Keep on improving. If you do not continuously work on getting better, you will fall behind. Or, as it is commonly said in English, you have to run just to stand still.
Different Types of Improvements
You can distinguish improvement into different types if you want. There is troubleshooting and problem solving, and then there is actual improvements. The boundary between these two is actually fluid, but it helps to keep in mind that there is more to kaizen than just firefighting, even though many shop floors are mostly occupied with solving problems that pop up.
Even a very well set-up production system will degrade over time. Machines and tools age, and their performance may suffer if there is no maintenance. Things will break. Sometimes you notice right away because the breakdown causes a lot of problems, and this forces you to fix it immediately. Other times the issue will be more subtle, and you may not even know that you have a technical defect, except that your quality or performance is slipping. The system also changes due to external factors. New products are developed, and what may have worked well for the old products may not work well for the new ones. The customer wants more (or fewer) products than before. You get a new supplier, maybe because the old one is out of business. All of this forces you to change your production system just to keep your company from going under.
However, fixing problems and troubleshooting is only one part of the different improvement efforts. Another part is prevention of problems through preventive maintenance and similar activities. I leave it up to you to decide if you consider this an actual “improvement” (i.e., kaizen) or not, since it only maintains the status quo, but you should not neglect it.
Besides fixing and preventing problems, there is actual improvement. The system runs, and there are no major issues like machine breakdowns, but it could run even better. What can you do to improve the system performance? Could you establish a pull system? Should you improve work standards? What about improving the shop floor layout to improve performance?
Most companies are almost completely preoccupied with firefighting. Only very lean and well-organized companies spend a lot of their efforts on actual improvement. If you are not sure which type your company is, then it is probably the former. Some truly lean companies like Toyota actually spend a lot of effort merely to find out where they still could improve.
As I said above, these two groups actually overlap quite a bit, and this classification is not a tool to distinguish projects, but more of a philosophical aid to show you that there is more to improvement than what blows up in your face.
Where to Start?
This brings up the question on where to start your kaizen efforts. This is not an easy question. You should know your true north. What are the overarching goals of your company? At least some of your improvement efforts should be geared toward this true north. If you are using Hoshin Kanri, it may help to give you a better understanding of the direction the company should be moving. Especially for larger projects, Hoshin Kanri or a similar overarching direction is very helpful.
There are also the firefighting projects. These often take priority. It is of no use to develop a beautiful pull system if your tools are broken and you do not produce anything.
An impact effort matrix can help you prioritize projects. You try to get the biggest bang for the buck. See more on prioritization in my post How to Manage Your Lean Projects – Prioritize. Some of your kaizen projects may be large, take time, and include multiple people. Do not underestimate the many things that can go wrong in large projects. Smaller steps are often easier.
Other kaizen projects may be very small, include only one or two people, and can be implemented quickly using duct tape and some string. Often, if it looks useful and can be done quickly, then you should just do it. Even starting an impact effort matrix may be more effort than doing the quick improvement in the first place. Such quick kaizen efforts are often particularly good to raise morale.
How to Proceed
So now you know where you want to do kaizen. But there are still many things that can go wrong. For me, there are a few key points that are more important than others:
Management Support: Any kind of successful project needs support from management. And by this I do not only mean that management allows it, or even wants it; they need to put their weight behind it. If you want to become lean, it is not enough that you want to lose weight; you actually need to do a lot of exercise to become lean. This may even require additional manpower or time to do the actual improvement. At Toyota, they have an amazingly large number of people to help with the kaizen effort, whereas in many other companies the task is merely slapped on top of already-overworked people.
Worker Involvement: It really helps if the improvement is done together with the people whose area is affected. Do not change a machine without talking with the workers first. They may not command your salary, but they usually know the shop floor better than anyone else does.
PDCA: Plan–Do–Check–Act are crucial for any kind of project. For me, this is one of the most important philosophies to achieve success. Many people want to achieve a lot in little time and do Plan-Do-Plan-Do-Plan-Do… but end up achieving nothing. The Check and Act are essential to ensure that your improvement is actual an improvement (kaizen 改善), and not a changing for the worse (kaiaku 改悪).
So this is the brief overview on how to do kaizen. While tools like SMED have a clear approach in seven steps (or similar), kaizen is much more fuzzy and harder to nail down. I hope this was useful to you, and gives you a little bit of guidance in the “softer” parts of lean manufacturing. Now go out, improve your system, and organize your industry, and keep on doing this forever!