November 03, 2011

Kaizen: What Is It All About?

Introduction
Kaizen is perhaps one of the most commonly used jargons when it comes to process improvement methodologies. It is also very well known that it one of the many philosophies or practices associated with lean thinking or lean manufacturing. The name “Kaizen” originates from two Japanese words- “kai” which means “change” or “to correct” and “zen” which means “good”. Thus kaizen stands for “change for good” or “continuous improvement”, and it literally does the same. Hence the popularity and widespread application it enjoys.
Origin and History
Kaizen is believed to have originated in Japan after World War II, when the industries and the economy were trying to get back on their feet with some help from American experts. The Japanese were taught statistical control methods and various management skills. One of the training materials used in the process was a film to introduce the three "J" programs (Job Instruction, Job Methods and Job Relations). The film was titled "Improvement in 4 Steps" (Kaizen eno Yon Dankai). This marked the first introduction of kaizen to Japan. Dr. W. Edwards Deming, one of the American experts, was awarded the “2nd Order Medal of the Sacred Treasure” by the Emperor of Japan in 1960 for his contributions in teaching and popularizing kaizen in Japan. He was considered a hero in Japan and later, the Union of Japanese Science and Engineering (JUSE) instituted the annual Deming Prizes for achievement in quality and dependability of products.
What is Kaizen?
Simply stated, kaizen is a philosophy or practice that aims to bring improvements in all processes of a system. The system here may refer to industry, business, workplace, services and even household or social activities- this marks the wide outlook and huge potential of kaizen. In Japan, kaizen is a way of life. Some other very important aspects of kaizen are:
1.      It is continuous and ongoing, not a monthly or annual event.
2.      If we are to consider only the business and industry applications, kaizen involves all the employees of the organization- from the top management as well as the bottom level laborers.
3.      Usually, kaizen is used to bring about small, incremental improvements, which, if pursued for some time and in proper manner, compound to very significant results.

Primary Elements of Kaizen
The foundation of kaizen rests on the following five elements, which also represent the major aspects of this ground-breaking way of thinking:
1.      Quality Circles: Groups which meet to discuss quality levels concerning all aspects of a company's running. Such groups are usually made at different levels in an organization to ensure good and widespread participation.
2.      Improved Morale: Strong morale amongst the workforce, in kaizen, is considered as a crucial step to achieving long-term efficiency and productivity.
3.      Teamwork: Kaizen needs the inputs of all the personnel- higher management as well as workforce, while they work in a team. This culture is also fostered by this philosophy.
4.      Personal Discipline: Each team member must have the basic understanding of the process and the belief that it is for the good of the organization as well as him/her. This commitment to personal discipline ensures the sustained strength of the team over the long period in which kaizen is implemented.
5.      Suggestions for Improvement: It is important that every member contributes through suggestions for improvement. In fact, it is advisable to evaluate the performance of the employees based on the value of the suggestions they provide as well as the extent to which they implement the suggestions of their juniors.

Implementation
The main techniques used in Kaizen are PDCA, also known as Shewhart cycle or Deming cycle and 5 Whys.
PDCA stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act.
Plan: Once the expected output is known, the necessary objectives and processes are accordingly established. It is advisable to start on a small scale as a trial to verify the results.
Do: The plan is executed and data is collected for analysis according to the further steps.
Check: The expected results are compared with those obtained from “Do”. If required, these steps are repeated several times to observe the trend.
Act: The differences in the data are analyzed to get to the root causes (5 Whys could be used here) and corrective measures are taken to resolve them. This step also suggests whether or not more PDCA cycles will be required.
5 Whys is a simple method to determine the root cause of a specific problem through repeated questioning. It can be visualized through fishbone diagram or Ishikawa diagram.
Kaizen is not limited to just such techniques. In most cases, it signifies a huge change in the corporate culture. To make it a success, the higher management doesn’t only need to work with the workforce as a team but also lead them by example. It should also be ensured that the suggestions received from the workforce are either implemented as soon as possible, or rejected with complete transparency. Further, each problem has to be looked at as an opportunity to improve. Kaizen can simply be expressed as a systematic way of finding, reporting and fixing problems.


Benefits of Kaizen
Though applicable in a huge variety of contexts, some of the common benefits of kaizen are:
1.      Kaizen produces immediate and visible results. Though not very substantial, these improvements play an important role in the overall process by compounding into a large change and also by repeatedly strengthening the morale of the team members.
2.      Being a way to lean thinking, kaizen has been very instrumental in reducing wastes in various forms like inventory, overproduction, waiting times, unnecessary transportation and motion and excess quality.
3.      It also improves employee retention, production capacity, space utilization, use of capital, product quality etc.
References
Wikipedia
The writer of this article, Akshay Agarwal is a PGP student of Indian Institute of Management, Raipur and has done his B.Tech from Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati. Akshay holds a Green Belt Certification in Six Sigma.

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