You can ride the continuous improvement train forever!

Kaizen is the Japanese word for improvement. In business, that definition gets expanded to encompass a broader meaning. Kaizen in the workplace is continuous improvement generated by numerous small, incremental changes. Because the changes generated through a Kaizen approach are small they are identified, analyzed, piloted and implemented quickly, shortcutting bureaucracy that drives the cost of change upward. Kaizen shortens the cycle time from idea generation to value delivery. The pedigree of Kaizen traces back to the idea of continuous improvement, which is one of the central tenants of the Toyota Production System (TPS). The scope of continuous improvement programs can include the whole organization: from the executive offices to the shop floor, and address issues impacting process and flow. Kaizen, continuous improvement, is industry and technology agnostic and is applicable in all walks of life. Kaizen might be the most democratic approach to change. Regardless of whether an organization takes a pluralistic approach, the goal of continuous improvement is to help teams to eliminate waste (Muda, Muri, Mura), while improving an organization’s capability to deliver value.

While there are as many varieties Kaizen as there are consulting firms, all of the approaches fall into two basic schools of thought: Kaizen focused on flow or process. Flow focuses on the movement of materials, information, and product. Changes from this form of Kaizen often affect the organization of work. Process-oriented Kaizen focuses on changing the steps required to transform inputs into value. Organizations embarking on a continuous improvement program attack both flow and process. 

Because of its incremental approach, to be effective at having a large or long-term impact Kaizen isn’t a set of isolated events. Rather the mindset that defines the philosophy of Kaizen needs to be adopted. A Kaizen mindset embraces the idea that those closest to the work can identify opportunities for change, execute small-scale experiments and then determine whether those experiments are successful or not. The Kaizen mindset is a reflection of a learning organization. Effective Kaizen is about mindset as much as it is about techniques and continuous improvement. A learning mindset creates an environment where people are more motivated to take on challenging work, persist in the face of setbacks, and achieve at higher levels. Empowering people to experiment and to risk failure in pursuit of learning is critical so that larger failures are avoidable. Without the safety to experiment and learn an organization will typically need to focus on larger-scale, bet-the-farm change projects. The Kaizen mindset is very similar to the concept of being agile, which requires adopting a flexible, learning mindset. In both cases, the agile and Kaizen mindsets mirror Dweck’s growth mindset, which views learning as transformative.

A large number of small changes can generate large-scale change. The saying “you eat an elephant one bite at a time” is a reflection of the mindset needed to generate large-scale changes with a Kaizen mindset (many small changes).  Unfortunately, it is easy to try to take the one big bite. I am sure you have taken a large bite of food and lived through the pain as the food descended to your stomach. A Kaizen mindset is much closer to the idea of small bites, chew, and swallow that I drummed into my children.


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