Kaizen: Lean Manufacturing Continuous Improvement

Carl Wright

One of the most popular buzzwords in business today is the word “kaizen”. It is a Japanese word meaning “incremental improvement”. Kaizen was formalized by the Toyota Production System, which is now utilized throughout the United States as lean manufacturing.

Kaizen Events and Teams

The term kaizen is often coupled with another word to create the phrase “kaizen events”. The kaizen event is the term given to a highly focused continuous improvement event consisting of a team working together for a brief time period to solve a business problem.

The kaizen event could focus on any business opportunity. It could be a line redesign, SMED (single-minute exchange of die) setup reduction event, speed improvement, cycle time reduction, waste reduction or any other issue.

Kaizen events are also conducted in service industries such as hospitals, banks and other non-manufacturing businesses.

A kaizen event is similar to a brainstorming exercise, at least in the beginning stages.

Kaizen teams normally consist of four to seven individuals. The team normally spends 100 percent of their time for a few days until the business problem or issue is solved or improved.

The team often consists of a cross-functional group of individuals with either knowledge in the area of focus or working in a department which is impacted by the issue.

For example, a kaizen event to improve lead time 50 percent might include individuals from sales, manufacturing, scheduling and shipping. The idea is for the team to be able to consider all views of the problem. A cross-functional team will be able to understand the impact of every decision on all other areas.

Kaizen events are normally conducted for significant improvement. The mission statement clearly states the expected results. For example, the mission statement might be to “reduce waste on Line 4 from 8 percent down to 4 percent”.

There is generally one piece of paper containing all pertinent information concerning the events, including:

  • Mission statement with objective
  • Team members, leader and management sponsor
  • Current problem statement
  • Resources required
  • Expected completion date
  • Results
  • Signoffs

The kaizen team generally meets first for instructions, brainstorming of ideas and development of action plans. Kaizens usually follow the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) methodology.

As the PDCA model suggests, once the actions are planned, they are carried out, checked and actions taken based on the results. The PDCA cycle is continued until the problem is sufficiently solved.

Kaizen teams should gather their own facts by observing the issues or problems for themselves. Observations show many issues that cannot be detected viewing reports and data.

Once the kaizen team has obtained improvement, most groups will give a presentation to management.

Kaizens often result in new ways of doing job tasks or conducting business. Procedures, tasks, duties and sequences may be changed. It is usually necessary for the team to work with the affected positions until all jobs become standardized (another lean term).

If the new process is not standardized, it is common for people to revert back to the old comfortable procedures. It often takes some time to obtain maximum improvement through practicing the new procedures.

Some kaizen events result in more work being done with less people. It is important in any lean manufacturing implementation to not put people out of work.

Most successful lean manufacturing implementations move people to the “5-S” or other work team until the company grows and needs them in other areas. As this process continues, a company will eventually produce much more product with the same amount of employees.

If a company reduces their headcount as a result of lean manufacturing and kaizen events, the improvement process will not be sustained. People simply will not work themselves out of a job, and certainly will not help a company eliminate their job.

It is important to celebrate and share success from kaizen events. Don’t forget to involve the people whose jobs have changed. They helped make the company better, and deserve to share in the celebration.

Read more on kaizen and lean manufacturing:

Kaizen Event Success and Sustainability

Eliminate Waste with Lean Business Model

Lean Manufacturing: Guidelines for Success


About the author:
Carl Wright is an industrial engineer, and an American Society for Quality-certified Six Sigma black belt and master black belt. A primer on kaizen events is located in our lean manufacturing training and six sigma black belt site.

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