When I first heard the word Kaizen, I thought this must have something to do with kayaking or meditation or meditating while kayaking. But I was a little off base. Kaizen derives from the Japanese words “kai” meaning “change” and “zen” meaning “good.” Improvement might be the English version of the word, but it goes deeper than just improving. Kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the top of the organizational chart to the bottom.
Initially, Kaizen was associated with assembly line work. A well-known example took place when American auto executives visited the Toyota Plant in Japan. The executives were curious how the Japanese were able to have such high production rates and such low manufacturing errors. As they watched the cars being assembled, workers were allowed to stop the line to address an issue like a wrong bolt or a door poorly welded. This was unheard of in American assembly line work where the mantra was “never stop the line.” And maybe in the short run U.S. productivity levels were high, but in the long run productivity suffered, because recalls and repairs were required on the back end.
Kaizen has expanded past assembly line work and has made its way into variety of workplaces. Lisa Michaels in an article titled “How to implement the Kaizen philosophy in your workplace” identifies five ways to achieve that:
1. Embrace incremental change
One of the most fundamental tenets of Kaizen is small, incremental change or one percent improvement each day. Small, incremental changes are easier to implement than large, radical changes but they can have powerful cumulative results.
If you are a business owner wanting to improve your work culture, know that changes need to be gradual. Kaizen and innovation are the two primary methods used to create change. While innovation requires a radical, sometimes shocking transformation, Kaizen only asks you to take small, comfortable steps toward improvement. Those steps can seem ridiculously trivial, but they deliver results.
2. Seek feedback
Making small changes over time enables you to course correct if you realize you are heading in the wrong direction. When leading a team, asking for feedback will help you determine if the change you brought helps your employees work easier.
Feedback should be a part of your business improvement strategy. Note that just asking for feedback does not always mean you will get it, and how you respond to it will also go a long way towards determining if you ever get it again.
But it’s important to note, not all feedback is helpful, so learn to evaluate and filter information without alienating the person giving it. Just because their feedback may not be useful in one instance doesn’t mean they cannot contribute.
3. Eliminate waste
In Kaizen, eliminating waste gives you the resources to create one percent improvement each day. The constant evaluation coupled with striving to reduce time-consuming or unnecessary activities creates the time to focus on growth and improvement.
4. Focus on improving processes
You might think of Kaizen as creating a recipe using the fewest number of steps and ingredients to achieve the best results. Even the most innovative processes can stem from making small changes. Ask yourself: What can I do in one minute per day to make x better?
5. Work as a team to solve problems
In that same vein, asking proactive, but small questions to train your mind into thinking of a solution is very Kaizen. The answer may not come right away, but these questions can help all team members brainstorm potential solutions and contribute their point of view. Kaizen encourages team participation in solving the problem rather than spending time trying to place the blame.
Applying Kaizen elements to daily tasks may improve the work flow and help implement small changes that in the long run can have a positive impact on the business at hand. It can also give a sense of responsibility, ownership and belonging to those who work closely with the day to day operations of a company.
And hey, maybe practicing Kaizen in regard to kayaking will help me move through the water with ease and serenity.