Written by Dobrica Savić © 2011. All rights reserved.

Kaizen - Continuous improvement


Do not be afraid of growing slowly, only of standing still. ⁓ Chinese proverb

Driving down a curvy road I was enjoying a cool afternoon and the greenery around me. The smell of tall pine trees was coming in through a half-open window. Smooth running of my old Toyota unsuccessfully tried to match the bit of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” coming out of the speakers. Tranquility of the moment and a perfect ride suddenly brought a random thought and a smile to my face. I remembered an article I’d read earlier that week about how the mighty Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had spent five years and five million dollars to study the world’s car industry and had reached a conclusion that the highest quality manufacturer of passenger vehicles in the world was Toyota. The ADAC[1] - the German Automobile Association for many years in a row - had also reported that Toyota cars had the fewest faults.

My reason for buying a Toyota was not so sophisticated. I was offered a good deal by a friend who was leaving the country for an overseas assignment. Sophisticated reason or not, I was very happy with my purchase from the very beginning and even now, three years later, I am still happy with my choice. A question in the minds of many happy Toyota owners must be - what are the reasons for that particular car to be so good? In other words, what gives Toyota that quality edge over many other brands? What makes it better than its competition?

Toyota's approach to car manufacturing for a number of decades has been to follow the way of Kaizen, or the system of continuous improvement in production quality, productivity, manufacturing technology, industrial processes, safety, company culture, and leadership. Kaizen was created in Japan following World War II and it simply means "continuous improvement". It comes from a combination of Japanese words 改 ("kai"), which means "change" or "to correct", and 善 ("zen") which means "good". In other words, Kaizen means “change for the better” of “continuous improvement”[2].

According to Kaizen philosophy every employee, regardless of his or her level, should be involved and encouraged to come up with suggestions for improvement on a constant and continuous basis. In some Japanese companies, such as Toyota and Canon, each employee makes in average up to 70 suggestions per year through their suggestion submission system (TEIAN in Japanese). They do not have to be necessarily ideas for some grand changes, but rather small and continuous proposals for improvements, waste reduction, higher efficiency and effectiveness. What gives an extra impetus to this process is that most, if not all of them, get to be implemented. Suggestions are not limited to a specific area such as manufacturing, marketing or administration. They can cover any area where improvements can be made, such as automation, quality control, employee suggestion systems, just-in-time delivery, and post-sale support, which are all part of the Kaizen system of running a business.

While the “Western world” likes to follow the principles that “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it," the main belief in Kaizen philosophy is to "do it better, make it better, improve it even if it isn't broken, because if we don't, we can't compete with those who do." It is a process-oriented system of slow changes completely opposite to Western business concepts of radical innovation and fast results.

Kaizen is non-judgmental since it wants to determine what is wrong, not who is wrong. It wants to fix the problems and correct the mistakes, without shooting the messenger. Any criticism is aimed at the things that don’t work and that need to be changed, not at the people. Since there is no judgment, people’s morale improves and they can work and cooperate better without fear and worry for their jobs or status. Kaizen depends heavily on the cooperative team spirit where success of each individual is a team success, and where at the same time a team success is a victory for each individual.

Kaizen sets high level standards and then tends to continually improve the same standards. However, to support permanent search for improvements Kaizen provides the training, supporting environment and proper guidance needed for employees to achieve such high quality standards and maintain their ability to meet those high quality expectations on an on-going basis. At the same time, Kaizen is controlled most often by improvement groups or committees.

Many Japanese leaders and managers strongly believe that the philosophy of Kaizen played a critical role in today’s Japanese businesses success. Because of its impact on amazing business achievements the impact of Kaizen in Japan spread also to other aspect of life, such as private, family or social life.

The philosophy of Kaizen is based on the willingness to constantly change and improve every aspect of life using small steps.