What is KAIZEN?

Kaizen, by general definition, means ‘improvement’. It is, in fact, a Lean tool to help you change your process capability within a very short period of time using a minimum of capital.


In so doing you maximize your employee capability and involvement. The whole concept of a Kaizen event is to make your process better at the end of the event than it was at the beginning. The structure of such an event is very important to be able to effect the changes that you want to make on the shop floor. The first portion of that is to properly identify the challenge, or the goals of the team. This is done well in advance of the team formation. It has been said that a problem well stated is more than half solved. Understanding their responsibilities and empowerment will enable the team members to concentrate their efforts on the attainment of their goals.


The basic structure of every Kaizen event is the same. The team is trained in the concepts of Lean manufacturing and the role that Kaizen plays in Lean.


This is done to allow the participants to understand why they will be making changes to the existing processes as well as identifying the process by which they will make the changes.


The challenge is then introduced to the team. The goals that are set for any team should be stretch goals that will challenge the team to address any and every potential cause for the existing situation. The team will then watch the existing process in operation.While some of the team members will be very familiar with the process, others will not have that foreknowledge and will have to be walked through the system. During this initial process identification there will be, almost invariably, some recognition of some of the deficiencies of the existing process.


The challenge is then introduced to the team. The goals that are set for any team should be stretch goals that will challenge the team to address any and every potential cause for the existing situation. The team will then watch the existing process in operation.While some of the team members will be very familiar with the process, others will not have that foreknowledge and will have to be walked through the system. During this initial process identification there will be, almost invariably, some recognition of some of the deficiencies of the existing process.


Done by brainstorming, all issues can be identified, categorized, prioritized and acted upon. The ‘acting upon’ is easily the most important aspect of Kaizen as a Lean tool. The team determines what changes would be required to improve the existing process and then they make the changes —as much as possible, by themselves.


The true value of Kaizen is in the changes that are implemented during the course of the blitz. Too often companies will assemble a team to determine how to correct a deficient process. That team will identify potential corrective actions and will make recommendations in that regard. Very often, this is as far as the process goes.


Sometimes companies already know what they’d have to do to improve but are stymied for any one of a number of reasons:

  • We’re too busy to change it right now

  • We don’t have the time to shut the line down to change it

  • We tried that before and it didn’t work

  • Charlie won’t change how he does it

  • It costs too much to change; etc.

The next step is for the team to view the existing process. Because the team would normally be made up of people from several functional areas of the plant this is an important part of the learning process for them. This might be the first time some of the people have ever seen this particular process.


At this stage the ‘area expert’ gets to describe the existing process and identify why they do things in this manner right now. During this step it often becomes obvious to the team what some of the changes might be that would be necessary to improve the process. Team members are encouraged to speak with people in the area at this time to understand what they might feel are some of the challenges within the existing system.


The Kaizen team has both the responsibility and the authority (within predetermined criteria) that allows them to make the necessary changes that will improve the process. These changes can be as simple as cleaning the area or purchasing hand tools and putting them where they are needed. They could be as complex as moving machinery, developing new procedures or reallocating personnel to a different job function.


They complete the changes, run a trial that will validate the changes that they have made, and then they are able to establish a new standard from that time on. Training for each person who will work within the newly established procedures ensues so there will be no confusion as to the requirements of the workplace from this point on. A presentation to management that identifies all of the changes completes the event and then the company can identify and plan the next improvement potential.


The resulting improvements that can be gained from a Kaizen event can be dramatic and far-reaching. A 50% performance improvement is not uncommon with some of the additional benefits being cross training (in problem-solving), improved process knowledge and improved personal motivation for team members.

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