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The Philosophy Behind Kaizen and Kaizen Events

Kaizen is a Japanese word for “continuous improvement and incremental change,” and manufacturers need Kaizen’s continuous productivity improvement and waste reduction techniques more than ever. In this introduction to his book, Chris A. Ortiz describes the benefits of Kaizen and the theory behind and common mistakes made in a Kaizen event.
This chapter is from the book

When companies make the decision to embark on a lean journey, they frequently have a few misconceptions about the endeavor. First of all, some believe that lean is a program with definable starting and ending criteria. In addition, this “program” is supposed to have clear direction and paths that dictate what to do and when to do it. If lean is incorporated with this mind-set, the chances of failure are very high. The concepts of lean and kaizen are incorporated into business in a manner that is right for the company. If I compared how each of my clients has adopted lean, I would find one definable similarity: They started. Once a lean journey begins, who knows where it will go? In lean, there is no fixed path or one-for-all guideline.

I am not implying that lean journeys do not involve setting goals for improvement such as increasing productivity, reducing scrap, improving on-time delivery, reducing inventory, or decreasing throughput time, for example; but how each company works to accomplish these types of metrics is different. You cannot adopt one organization’s practices and apply them to your own organization in exactly the same way. I often see this confusion when teaching the “phenomenon” of lean. People struggle to connect the dots and see how it will work in their organization. It is this first misconception I would like to discuss in this chapter.


Kaizen is a Japanese word for “continuous improvement and incremental change.” The philosophy of kaizen is about involving everyone in the organization to focus on overall organizational improvements. The cornerstone of lean manufacturing is removing waste to better respond to the needs of the customer in regard to on-time delivery, competitive cost, and better quality. More important, kaizen emphasizes developing a process-oriented culture that is driven to improve the way a company operates. Think of the number of processes that exist in a company. A process generally has a starting point and an ending point. To clarify, the process of manufacturing and assembling a product starts with fabricating and processing parts from raw material; then those parts are fitted together to make the final product. This is a simple and crude example, but my point is that the process by which these products are built ends at some point, or else there would be nothing tangible remaining. Let’s apply this concept to an administrative/office environment. There is a process by which a purchase order is created or a contract is generated. Both processes have a start and an end, when the purchase is completed and sent to the warehouse or production floor, or when the contract is signed by both parties.

By removing waste, an organization becomes more productive, ensuring that it is serving the customer’s needs. This will bring a financial gain to the organization, but you cannot sell lean to a culture if you are only promoting its cost savings. Let’s be honest; reduced cost, better quality, and on-time delivery will not encourage all employees to change the way they think. The philosophy of kaizen brings much more to the table. Changing company culture is an ongoing battle, and you want to address issues that may arise early on. So in essence, kaizen is about coaching and mentoring people to become better at what they do in all aspects of their work. Buying expensive pieces of equipment or software will not bring the cultural change you need to make lean successful. These types of expenditures usually create a one-time improvement with minimal effort. By no means does this imply that there is no need for capital expenditures, but kaizen does not mean spending a lot of money.

So to refer back to what I previously wrote, there is no perfect road map for dealing with company culture, and it is this culture that will determine your level of success and distinguish your company from other organizations.

People of Kaizen

Some companies place the responsibility for process improvements on manufacturing engineers and managers. These individuals generally come up with the initial ideas to improve a work area, conduct the analysis and preplanning, and then implement the change. Production workers feel that the new process is being “pushed” on them because they were not given the opportunity to suggest improvements. This is not the case across all spectrums, but it is still a very common practice. In kaizen-based organizations, process improvements involve everyone from executive leadership down to the entry-level production worker. This includes the creation of the improvement idea, process analysis, preparation phases, implementation, and training. The kaizen philosophy not only encourages production workers to suggest improvements but requires that they do so. This can be difficult for some leaders to swallow because it essentially means relinquishing some of their authority in the improvement process. I have come across many plant and other upper managers who find it difficult to delegate decision making for the company. The most successful lean journeys occur, however, when upper and even executive managers back off and provide an environment that fosters change. When people are allowed to speak openly and make changes from their own perspectives, the possibilities are endless. Managers who allow and encourage this behavior will see far more progress in their organization’s lean journey than those who tend to make all the decisions themselves.

Leaders of Kaizen

How do kaizen and lean fit into a company’s vision? A common illusion that business leaders have is that lean is the one and only business strategy for the company. Lean is indeed a business strategy, but it should not be the all-encompassing focus. As organizations develop their overall vision and focus, lean has to be a major role player. Again, the concepts of lean and kaizen, when all is said and done, deliver value to the customer in terms of cost, quality, and delivery. A company’s culture must be driven to continuous improvement because it benefits the customer. Delivering that value is difficult because each customer is different and expectations are always changing. Lean transformation is one tool for achieving better customer relations, but there are other tools in a company’s strategy, such as improving supplier relations, training and mentoring employees, adding product lines, and capturing new markets and business segments. These are examples of possible “pillars” that would be part of a larger strategy. One of those pillars is lean/kaizen.

Becoming a leader of kaizen takes time because leaders are part of company culture just like engineers, maintenance personnel, and production workers. Transformation into a kaizen leader does not happen overnight. As I mentioned in the preceding section, kaizen leaders must learn to release some of their hold on authority and give it to everyone in the company so that change and improvements can spread through the organization. Next, kaizen leaders must not focus on the financial gain from lean but rather on using kaizen to help develop their people.

In my previous book, Lessons from a Lean Consultant, I wrote an entire chapter called Lean Leadership Made Simple. The mentality of company leaders who practice negative management techniques—working their people long hours and using them as cogs in the wheel—is devastating to the lean journey. Allow me to summarize from that chapter.

My personal experiences in the lean field have taught me a lot of valuable things, especially how to treat people. The companies I have assisted quickly realized that a new approach to leadership was needed to ensure success in their lean endeavors. I was by no means a perfect employee in the years leading up to starting Kaizen Assembly, and in fact I was a bit resistant to lean as well. However, I always maintained the belief that my resistance was normal and appreciated my great lean leaders. How we treat people in our lean journeys is the cornerstone of lean leadership.

I took all that I learned from my experiences and use it now to lead companies in a manner that seems fair and just. Organizations embarking on lean need effective leaders who understand the importance of employee contributions and how much their efforts and attitudes affect the success or failure of a company. Certain corporate leaders need to realize that although aggressive practices may result in short-term financial success, they also place the company on the path toward a precarious future.

Lean leaders are only human beings; therefore, they typically conduct themselves in a manner that reflects their personality. If individuals are generally grumpy and negative to change, their management techniques will reflect those characteristics, and they will affect the morale of others through their body language as well as their words. Individuals who are happy and positive tend to lead in the same manner. Lean leaders who do not let negativity influence their actions will create a following of positive thinkers.

Management techniques reflecting personalities can be categorized in the following ways. Poor lean leadership definitely results in lack of motivation, poor performance, high absenteeism, and, ultimately, high employee turnover. Poor lean leaders are easily recognizable because they have some or all of the following characteristics: They are focused on their own personal needs rather than the professional needs of their team; they are pessimistic rather than positive; they are poor listeners; they are lazy or lack motivation; they are stubborn or closed to new ideas; they are slow to adapt to change; they are blamers rather than responsibility takers; they provide bad or unclear direction; they have no idea who their people are; they are secretive; they are never available; their doors are always closed; they fear failure; they do not stand behind their people; they have difficulty developing their employees; they exercise leadership by control, manipulation, and coercion. None of these qualities is helpful in successfully engaging people in lean.

Effective lean leadership is not based on control, coercion, and manipulation. Lean leaders are focused on the future rather than the past. They gain respect by their ability to inspire others to work toward specific goals. Effective lean leaders help others to become better people; they create workplaces that attract good individuals, and they keep their workers happy, motivated to pursue excellence, and focused on continuous improvement.

Kaizen is simply a mind-set and philosophy of ongoing change and improvement. As a lean practitioner I am often asked how to deal with resistance to change. There is no perfect template or guideline for dealing with people. You and your company have to work continually with your employees and provide the support and accountability they need to mold them into your own change agents.

Benefits of Kaizen

Kaizen teams are created to provide a quick and positive impact on the organization. Each team member is handpicked according to his or her ability to make both measurable and nonmeasurable improvements. Kaizen events teach people the concepts of teamwork, meeting deadlines, interacting with different personalities, and pursuing excellence as a whole, and they open up employees’ creativity. Professional and personal relationships are developed during kaizen events that continue after the events are over. These are examples of nonmeasurable benefits that allow the organization to develop a culture driven toward continuous improvement. The other side to kaizen events is more measurable: Teams make improvements to key metrics that not only benefit the company from a performance perspective, but ultimately improve the relationship with the customer in regard to better cost, on-time delivery, and improved quality.

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