Kaizen is a Japanese workplace philosophy which focuses on making continuous small improvements which keep a business at the top of its field. Many well known Japanese companies such as Canon and Toyota use kaizen, with a group approach which includes everyone from CEOs to janitors on the factory floor. This group approach has been adopted successfully in other regions of the world as well, but Japanese workers have refined it to an art form.
It has been suggested that kaizen works particularly well because Japan is a collective culture, and kaizen relies on collective values. People in more individualistic cultures may struggle with some of the basic principles of kaizen. Kaizen also suggests that everything constantly has room for refinement and improvement, and this value is contrary to the beliefs of some Westerners. Many Westerners place a high value on the achievement and maintenance of perfection, a flaw in the framework of the kaizen philosophy, under which perfection can never be truly reached.
The foundation of kaizen was laid in Japan after the Second World War, when the country was attempting to rebuild factories and rethink many systems. Several American experts on workplace improvement including W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran came to Japan to lecture and teach. Using information from these individuals, the concept of kaizen began to be formed and it took off in the 1950s.
There are five underpinning principles to kaizen. The first is a heavy reliance on teamwork, in which everyone's opinion is valued and considered. Workers also have strong personal discipline, and morale in factories must improve under kaizen. Workers should also be confident about offering suggestions for improvement, even when a system appears to be functioning adequately; kaizen recognizes that there is always room for improvement. Finally, the system uses quality circles, groups of workers who meet and work together to solve problems and come up with innovative changes.
One of the primary goals of kaizen is eliminating waste, considering both the process and the end results. In addition, it encourages big picture thinking, with employees considering how their actions impact the whole. It also fosters a culture of learning and experimentation without judgment and blame, with all workers understanding that their opinions are important and useful to the overall system.
Kaizen is constant. Unlike many Western workplace improvement systems, it is not a problem based approach. Workers come up with new ideas and submit them all the time, and quality circles meet frequently. Any hiccup on the factory floor results in the meeting of a quality circle to talk about the issue and discuss changes to implement. As a result, Japanese companies are continuously becoming more efficient and streamlined, allowing them to effectively compete with other companies which also integrate the kaizen philosophy into their daily practice.