Maintenance Q&As

What is Kaizen? How Do I Implement It? And How Does It Differ from Lean and Six Sigma?

Answered January 21 2020

Kaizen is one of many terms thrown around when discussing how to improve production processes. While the term itself simply means “change for the better,” it has come to be applied to the philosophy of continuous improvement adopted by numerous organizations today.

Companies that implement Kaizen have been shown to produce positive results, but the process of adopting this idea isn’t always clear. Here, we’ll discuss what Kaizen is, how it can be implemented, and how it differs from methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma.

Definition of Kaizen

Kaizen is a Japanese term that translates into “change for the better,” though it is often interpreted as “continuous improvement.” As applied in businesses today, it’s a philosophy focused on constantly searching for ways in which an organization can improve its processes.

Under Kaizen philosophy, there is always something that can be improved, which means the organization’s culture needs to be consistently focused on finding processes that can be made more effective or efficient. This responsibility falls on everyone, not just managers or executives.

Kaizen isn’t a tool or methodology. Rather, it’s a culture of continuous improvement in which everyone is looking for ways to make internal processes and practices better.

Tip: Kaizen isn’t the same as innovation. Innovation involves new technologies and processes that create major boosts, whereas Kaizen is more concerned with consistent, gradual improvement.

Benefits of Kaizen

Organizations that adopt a Kaizen-centered culture see numerous benefits for their processes. Those benefits may take the following forms.

Improved quality

With a Kaizen culture’s focus on improvement, one of the advantages is going to be improved quality of one’s product or service. As those closest to production processes find areas where product quality or efficiency are negatively affected, the organization is able to implement changes that reduce waste and eliminate defective products.

Shorter delivery times

As the team finds ways to make processes more efficient, activities that don’t add value are cut away, obstacles to delivery are removed, and processes are made more efficient. The end result is quicker delivery times, which has the added benefit of increasing customer satisfaction while eliminating sources of frustration for the company itself.

Reduced costs

Naturally, by reducing waste and eliminating non-value-added activities, the costs of running production processes and other services are reduced. Companies that focus on improvements find ways to spend less time and money on their processes, and therefore benefit from lower overhead.

More effective management

Improvements aren’t limited only to physical production processes or workflows. Kaizen focuses on continuous change for the better in all areas of business operations, including management practices. Ways in which management practices can be improved include:

  • Implementing more effective procedures
  • Improving training
  • Streamlining administrative processes
  • Improving planning practices
  • Streamlining workflow
  • Facilitating communication and reporting
  • Cleaning up documentation and data storage

Leaders should constantly be looking for ways in which they can improve the management of people and processes.

Increased safety

Safety is a major concern in many industries. A Kaizen culture will be sensitive to areas where safety is put at risk and take measures to mitigate those risks. It may be as simple as putting labels on cleaning equipment or providing safety training. It may be as involved as installing safety features on equipment or improving maintenance practices.

Improved morale

The cultural shift required by the adoption of Kaizen helps everyone take more responsibility over their work. In addition, communication improves, and everyone plays a role in making progress happen. The end result is often increased workplace morale.

In an effective Kaizen-oriented process, low-level employees are able to submit suggestions on where improvements can be made, and as changes happen, they see the results. The ultimate outcome is a more responsible, positive-thinking workforce that knows that their input matters.

The Kaizen process

While Kaizen is more of a philosophy or corporate culture than a set methodology, it will take physical shape within an organization. The Kaizen process often follows the steps and practices outlined below.

Identifying opportunities for change

Continuous improvement begins with identifying areas where changes are needed. Anything counts, from management practices, to the way equipment is maintained. There are a number of ways to identify these opportunities for change, including:

  • Soliciting suggestions from employees
  • Tracking asset health and data
  • Keeping activity logs

Simply keeping track of data from all facets of your business will help you identify areas where improvement is necessary, thus kicking off the process.

Tip: When a group of employees, managers, and even C-level executives get together to discuss ways to improve, it’s called a Kaizen event. These events may be a simple meeting, or they may be highly involved gatherings.

Analyzing current processes

As you collect data and identify processes that need improvement, it will be important to analyze how those processes work. After all, simply making a change, without understanding how it might impact the process, can backfire. As such, it’s important to take a bit of time to analyze how current processes work, before discussing what might be done about it.

By analyzing current processes, you’ll identify areas where they might be falling short. For instance, if a specific conveyor line tends to turn out more defective items than properly functioning products, and the data shows regular faults with the CNC machine, it may be worth investigating what causes those faults. Perhaps the machine isn’t maintained properly, or something is off with the calibrations.

Getting to the bottom of each problem is key to beginning to solve it.

Tip: Root cause analysis (RCA) is a valuable tool in this stage.

Develop a solution

Once you’ve pinpointed the exact problems that need solving, it’s time to develop a solution. Often, that might involve discussing the issue with others who are part of the process. As you bring up ideas, consider those that are within your power to implement. Anything that is beyond your means or scope should either be disregarded or sent to those who have the required authority/resources.

The solution you develop should be:

  • Simple
  • Actionable
  • Effective

Remember that it doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering, nor does it have to be perfect. Kaizen processes tend to consist of numerous small improvements implemented on a consistent basis rather than groundbreaking innovation.

Tip: Referencing the 5S method in total productive maintenance can be a great starting point for seeing how improvements could be made.

Implement the solution

Once you have a solution, begin implementing it. Doing so may require training personnel in new processes, creating and posting signs or labels, using existing tools in new ways, or adopting new management practices.

The key to implementing solutions is consistency. Make sure everyone is on the same page, from entry-level operators to high-level managers.

In addition, make sure you keep tabs on the new process as it’s used. Get feedback from workers, track data through enterprise software, and generally watch how it’s going.

Analyze results

As you collect data on your new process, it may be necessary to implement changes. Take time to analyze the results of your solutions to make sure it’s accomplishing what you want it to.

If you’re seeing a positive change, great! No adjustments are necessary. On the other hand, if you find that it’s not achieving the results you would like (or worse, creating new problems), you’ll want to do some analysis to see what’s going wrong, and then make adjustments as needed. Try re-implementing it, and continue making adjustments until it does what you need it to.

Note that the solutions you implement don’t necessarily have to be perfect from the start, but they should cause improvement. Just keep working at it—that’s the essence of Kaizen philosophy.

Standardize

After your solution has been implemented and is performing the way you want it to, it’s time to standardize it. That may mean codifying new best practices into training materials and policies, creating recurring work orders, making sure certain items are kept in your MRO inventory, or using other methods to make the change an enduring part of your processes.

Plan future improvements

Once a new method or process has been implemented and standardized, Kaizen isn’t over. It’s a philosophy of continuous improvement, meaning you should strive to keep improving on each change you make as you progress forward.

Keep monitoring new processes, and when there’s an opportunity for improvement, jump on it and develop ways to do things better. Kaizen is a continuous cycle, so you’re never truly done.

How to begin implementing Kaizen

The process itself is fairly straightforward, but Kaizen is ultimately a culture, not a process. In order to be successful, you need to create a cultural shift in your organization, one that supports continuous improvement rather than focusing on maintaining the status quo.

The following tips should help you make that shift.

Involve everyone

Kaizen involves everyone. It’s not just a way for managers to make adjustments from the top-down, nor is it strictly for employees. It is a company-wide culture where everyone is involved in continuous change.

One way to involve everyone is to allow workers to make suggestions. While not every suggestion made by your employees will yield positive results, many of them will, and they should be part of the process. After all, they’re typically the ones closest to the items you want to improve, so getting their input can be invaluable.

In addition, managers, supervisors, and even executives should be encouraged to find ways to improve their processes as well. Software tools designed to monitor workflows, productivity, maintenance, and so forth, as well as consulting regarding best management practices, can help them make changes from their level.

Check processes personally

Whenever a piece of equipment fails, an employee makes a valid suggestion, or problematic trends come up in the data, it’s not enough to take it at face value. Management personnel are encouraged to look into the problem personally in order to best understand how it works.

An example of this is found in maintenance planning best practices. Maintenance planning is not a desk job—planners should go and take a look at equipment themselves when responding to work requests. Doing so will make them more aware of issues that might arise in the course of performing repairs, such as safety issues, foot traffic, and obstacles.

Track data

Since Kaizen culture functions best when you can back up your plans with data, tracking that data should become a priority. Without hard numerical data on your processes and performance, it will be difficult to find areas for improvement or make effective plans.

One example of data tracking is CMMS (computerized maintenance management system) software. With a CMMS, a maintenance team can log work orders, track asset health, manage MRO inventory, and plan maintenance with minimal effort.

Similar software tools can benefit other departments in similar ways, making them an effective way to adopt the “onwards and upwards” ideology of Kaizen.

Search for forms of waste

One of the terms often used under Kaizen is “muda,” which means “waste.” One of the goals of a Kaizen workplace culture should be eliminating all forms of waste, whether that’s material waste from production processes, time lost on activities that add little value, or excess energy used by poorly maintained equipment.

Processes on the production floor, in the office, or in other areas should be closely examined to identify potential forms of waste. One useful way to find potential waste is to map out the processes used to create items of value, a practice referred to as value stream mapping.

Kaizen vs. Lean and Six Sigma

The terms “Kaizen,” “lean,” and “Six Sigma” are often used interchangeably, and while they are all concerned with making business processes more efficient, they aren’t technically the same. Each has its own focus and nuances.

Lean

Lean, as opposed to fat, is a term used to indicate that processes should be kept as streamlined as possible. The term is often used to describe specific processes in a business, such as “lean manufacturing,” “lean maintenance,” and “lean reliability.”

Making a process “lean” means eliminating as many forms of waste from it as possible. In manufacturing, those types of waste are identified as:

  • Defects
  • Overproduction
  • Waiting
  • Non-utilized talent
  • Transportation
  • Inventory
  • Motion
  • Extra processing

By eliminating these types of waste, an operation becomes more efficient, less costly, and easier to sustain.

Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a process intended to help improve product quality by eliminating defects and variations. It does so by making use of two different methodologies, known as DMAIC and DMADV.

DMAIC stands for:

  • Define
  • Measure
  • Analyze
  • Improve
  • Control

Whereas DMADV stand for:

  • Define
  • Measure
  • Analyze
  • Design
  • Verify

The main objective is to eliminate sources of defects, which can be discovered through root cause analysis and other methods.

Comparison with Kaizen

Lean is focused on eliminating waste, and Six Sigma is primarily concerned with improving the quality of the end results of a process. As such, the two are often used together, as in Lean Six Sigma.

Kaizen is focused on enhancing all facets of a business by standardizing processes and identifying opportunities for improvement. As such, it can form a key part of keeping processes lean and eliminating defects. In that sense, lean and Six Sigma methodologies would operate under a Kaizen philosophy.

Conclusion

To summarize, Kaizen as a philosophy focuses on continuous improvement, which typically requires a cultural shift. As such, everyone should be involved in that process, from your first Kaizen event through to final implementation and standardization.

Lean and Six Sigma often operate under the principles of Kaizen by focusing on eliminating waste and improving product quality, respectively. However, they should not be confused with Kaizen itself.

The results of implementing continuous improvement in a facility or other business organization are improved quality, boosted morale, lower overhead, quicker delivery times, and overall better business practices. These benefits may be slow in coming, but they tend to endure over the long haul as a forward-thinking cultural shift takes place in the organization.

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