Kaizen to the Rescue

Successful organizational improvement initiatives depend on successful follow-up and maintenance. To this end, a very effective continuous improvement approach is Kaizen—“change for the best” or “good change.”

Kaizen is a Lean methodology that includes a set of activities applied continuously to all functions in an organization. What sets Kaizen apart from other improvement methodologies is that it involves all employees in the organization—from the CEO to the front line workers.

And it is easy to apply in any type of organization and to all processes within the organization.

Kaizen originates in Japanese businesses, but its influence since the Second World War is worldwide. The reason is simple: Kaizen humanizes the workplace by involving all employees to spot and eliminate waste in business processes. The process is transparent and inclusive of all those involved in the process: from suppliers to customers to employees to all other stakeholders.

The continuous improvement from Kaizen is a daily process of evaluating workflow and eliminating waste on the spot. In many organizations bogged down with policies, directives, and other “checking” mechanisms, workflow is slow and wasteful. But with Kaizen, eliminating waste directly targets these checking mechanisms to improve efficiency and productivity, enabling a faster workflow.

Another benefit of Kaizen is that usually only small improvements are delivered. Over time, these small improvements add up to big improvements because many (all) processes are involved throughout the organization. And this compound productivity improvement means huge savings in time and money for the organization—systematically replacing inefficient practices with customer value-adding practices is a win-win for all.

Kaizen replaces the command-and-control mid-twentieth Century models of improvement programs. Because changes to processes are carefully monitored by those who directly work in the process, Kaizen’s continuous improvement is sustainable. In addition, changes are typically done on a smaller scale, so it is easier to monitor and sustain improvements in the long term.

While Kaizen events are usually week-long blitzes of improvement and limited in scope, issues identified at one event are very useful in informing subsequent improvement events. This type of “paying it forward” approach of “plan-do-check-act” helps maintain a cycle of continuous improvement in all of the processes in the organization.

What is also interesting, but perhaps not surprising, Kaizen has evolved into personal development principles because of its simplicity. Check out Robert Maurer’s book on this topic: One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.

The Fast Track to Change

Here’s a hypothetical situation. Company A has been experiencing dropped calls in its customer service department. This has led to an increased number of customer complaints. To handle this, the customer service department’s overtime hours are going through the roof. As you can imagine, this is costing Company A a lot of money not only in overtime, but in lost customers. What should Company A do? There are two options. They can choose a traditional approach to problem solving or apply the Kaizen method.

Here is how this problem will be solved using a traditional approach:

  • A committee is formed to analyze the situation.
  • The committee will take several days or weeks to determine the root cause of the problem (meetings are required, committee members all need to be involved, and their schedules need to be coordinated).
  • Once the problem is identified, the committee will reconvene to determine how to correct the problem. Recommendations will be proposed and agreed.
  • Recommendations will then be presented to management for a decision.
  • An implementation plan may be written.
  • An implementation committee will implement changes.
  • Employees will be advised about changes and they will be expected to adapt.

Using the Kaizen method, this is how the problem is solved:

  • A multidisciplinary team (from across the organization) is formed to analyze the situation.
  • The team meets over a five-day period to conduct its analysis, make decisions, and implement changes.
  • Since the team is multidisciplinary, adapting to change is seamless: Employees have been involved since the start.

There are two key differences between these two methods. The first is that in the traditional method, it can take several weeks to months to implement change; whereas, the Kaizen method sees change implemented within days. The second key difference is in change sustainability. In the traditional method, the process is typically “closed door operations” until a solution is determined and only during (or after) implementation are employees informed or involved. In the Kaizen event, employees are involved from the start, so change is much easier to sustain.

If you were Company A, which method of problem solving would you choose?