What is Kaizen?
Kaizen is the Japanese word for ‘improvement’ or ‘good change’, but it has come to mean ‘continuous improvement’. In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions such as eliminating waste, promoting innovation, and encouraging worker purpose and accountability. The idea is to put quality control directly into the hands of the workers in order to deliver small improvements. You could say that these are the aims of Kaizen.
Kaizen differs from business improvement programs used in the twentieth century, as it has no large scale planning and lengthy implementation. Instead small experiments are used that can be rapidly adapted. It puts the power of quality into the hands of those carrying out the work, in this sense.
The history of Kaizen
In World War Two there was neither time nor resources to radically improve the production of war equipment on a large scale, and the USA’s Training Within Industry program came up with a new approach: to improve the use of existing workforces and technologies.
To improve management skills in Japan, training films and programs were prepared. Titled ‘Improvement in Four Steps’ (Kaizen eno Yon Dankai) it was introduced to Japan. The most well-known example of Kaizen in practice is Toyota, in the prevention of defects, as a direct response to American management. W. Edwards Deming argued that quality control should be put in the hands of the line workers.
Kaizen was brought to the West in 1986 by Masaaki Imai via his book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success.
Some of the core purposes behind Kaizen, mentioned above, inform its implementation. In order to promote innovation the status quo must be ignored, and a system or cycle of continuous improvement is formulated. This system is meant to repeat through the same steps to create an ongoing system of improvement, which involves making a list of problems, testing solutions, analysing if they work. If they do work they are standardised throughout the company, if they don’t the process is repeated. The same process is repeated regardless to tackle other problems or test solutions.
The Five Whys asked questions about why a failure has occurred, basing the next question on the answer to the previous to attempt to get to the root cause. This system can be used as a tool for self-improvement. In practice it can be turned into a diagram, and used as a system of continuous improvement.
Other systems include the Kaizen 5S framework aims to create an ideal physical workplace in order to improve efficiency: Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardise, and Sustain. There is the PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Act – also called the Deming Cycle or the Shewhart Cycle.
How does Kaizen relate to anything else?
What Kaizen means to a large business may not always relate to individuals and those who have yet to learn about and adopt the approach, but it can be a model used for many purposes such as in effecting personal and business development. Its advantages can include rapid improvement, thinking outside of the box, and gaining a new understanding of how things work without the restraints of culture, status quo, or traditional assumptions.
As a freelance copy editor and proofreader who enjoys to work independently, I particularly like the idea of putting more responsibility for improvement into the hands of workers because I think it can be liberating and it can allow for organisational change in a system at the level where work is done. If you’re self-employed you’re also a worker and must make continuous improvements if you are to succeed: see what works, ask why, and develop models that may improve your method.
Kaizen for personal improvement
When I started reading about Kaizen, one thing I was struck by was how much I had always been invested in my own self-improvement, since being a young adult, without actually being aware of it or reading self-help books. For example, improvement in health and creativity has always been important to me, and I often fostered a hope of branching out in these areas for the sake of improvement, knowledge, happiness, and well-being. As I got older, I applied this same need for improvement to success as a copy editor/proofreader, and author.
There are likely many people with the same challenges towards improving their lives in their unique way, who are struck by some common pitfalls that have been identified by Kaizen. Kaizen for self-improvement aims to change the mindset that leads to those pitfalls, based on the same philosophy of small continuous change rather than tackling and achieving life goals immediately. Here are some of the main points:
- Success is not a destination; it’s an ongoing process towards continuous improvement. You’re never done. It can be tempting for many to work really hard in the expectation of reaching a time where success leads to a relaxed state of life, where no achieving goals or working is necessary. I suppose the reason for this expectation could be the mind’s attempt to balance out a work-oriented life with a future hope of relaxation.
- Don’t aim to tackle big life-changing goals in a short period of time because they won’t be achievable. Instead, focus on tasks in the present you can do that can help you on your path to achieving your goals. Aim for a gradual ‘1% improvement’ every day in whatever you want to do. In practice it doesn’t have to measure as a single percent, I don’t think. The point is to improve at a gradual and comfortable pace. This can be spending a small amount of time doing a task, ten minutes each day, and then adding an extra two minutes when you’re ready. It could also involve adding related tasks to that task, fitting it into a routine that works for you.
The point is that Kaizen’s philosophy of continuous improvement can be used on a day-to-day basis for improving your life or freelance business just as much as it can help a large business by focusing on what can be done in the present to improve how things are done instead of improbable large-scale business changes or life-changing achievements.
To me this means letting go of restraints, such as cultural beliefs or the status quo in how work or improvement is to be carried out, creating an organised workspace, and encouraging innovation in life. It’s not about sticking to a single system as the template for success, but improving on that system as time goes by. I think the point of ‘success is not a destination’ could mean that there should be balance in your approach in implementing success, improvement, or Kaizen, otherwise routine towards those things may lead to stagnation or a new status quo. Kaizen can help to remind you not to expect too much in present action when concocting new goals and not to be too disappointed if they fail to deliver immediate results.