Kaizen (改善), is the Japanese word for “improvement”. In business, kaizen refers to the activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all members of the IT department from the CIO to the first level helpdesk staff members. Working in IT can be hectic and we can sometimes get caught up with day to day tasks such as service request and incident management and project work. We’re so overwhelmed with “the day job” that the thought of continuous improvement seems too daunting. But continuous improvement isn’t an “all or nothing” game. Improvements don’t have to change the world overnight, they just need to improve things over time.
Ultimately, we need to get better at getting better – and this blog looks at how an approach called Kaizen” can help.
What is Kaizen
Kaizen is a Lean Six Sigma term and a Japanese philosophy that focuses on continual improvement throughout all aspects of life. In fact, Kaizen is the Japanese word for “change for better” or “continual improvement.”
Kaizen is based on the philosophical belief that everything can be improved: Some organisations look at a process and see that it’s running fine; Organisations that follow the principle of Kaizen see a process that can be improved. This means that nothing is ever seen as a status quo – there are continuous efforts to improve which result in small, often imperceptible, changes over time. These incremental changes add up to substantial changes over the longer term, without having to go through any radical innovation. It can be a much gentler and employee-friendly way to institute the changes that must occur as a business grows and adapts to its changing environment.
When applied to the workplace, Kaizen activities can improve every function of a business, from the IT service desk to sales operations, and from the CEO to a new employee on their first day. It aims to eliminate “waste” in all systems of an organisation through the improvement of standardised activities and processes.
The Benefits of Kaizen
By using Kaizen as a way of working, your organisation will be able to identify improvements in quick, effective, and straightforward “chunks” – allowing improvements to be delivered incrementally and without undue strain on day-to-day operations.
The generic benefits include:
- Less waste is created and materials are used more efficiently as are employee skills.
- Processes become more efficient and streamlined
- People are more satisfied – they have a direct impact on the way things are done.
- Team members have more input into how their role is performed and are more inclined to commit to doing a good job.
- Employees are more satisfied and engaged. Employees that are happier are more likely to stay.
- More focus on improving workflows, with a “pull” rather than a “push” approach which reduces the potential for bottlenecks
- Increases in efficiency tend to contribute to lower costs and higher quality products.
- Improved consumer satisfaction by producing a higher quality product with fewer faults.
- By looking at processes from a solutions perspective allows employees to solve problems continuously.
- Teams that work together to solve problems build stronger relationships.
The Kaizen Process
The Kaizen process should follow the following steps:
The continuous cycle of Kaizen activity has six phases:
1. Identify a problem or opportunity
2. Analyse the process
3. Develop an optimal solution
4. Implement the solution
5. Study the results and adjust
6. Standardise the solution
Kaizen starts with a problem, more precisely the recognition that a problem exists and that there are opportunities for improvement. Once problems are identified, the organisation needs to enlist cross-functional personnel to understand the underlying cause of it. The proposed solution is then tested on a small scale. Using data, the team makes adjustments to the solution. And finally, the results are spread across the organisation and the solution is standardised.
Review and Improve
Kaizen is about making many small improvements on a continual basis. Your team needs to continue the work already done by continuously monitoring the performance of the work area and coming up with more improvements or opportunities for continual service improvement.
If you fail to give the team the time, support, and motivation to continue to improve, then eventually any gains that you’ve made through your Kaizen activities will slip and you’ll potentially be back where you started.
Getting Ready for Kaizen
Kaizen is all about adding value and making things better, big or small, simple or complex. A Kaizen event charter should be created to describe the problem and map out the required resources, for example, the people, time, and budget required to resolve or improve the issue. This will enable the Kaizen event to be planned, prepared, and effective.
Elements to capture in your event charter could include:
- Kaizen Facilitator
- Problem statement
- Project sponsor
- Team members
- Contact details
- Measurable objectives and key deliverable
- Potential obstacles
Based on the Kaizen event charter, the Kaizen event can be appropriately planned out to give it the best possible chance of success.
When planning a Kaizen event, the relevant business stakeholders and the Kaizen team should be in agreement as to how progress will be communicated. And, ideally, a Kaizen event is planned within a short timeframe.
It is highly recommended that you schedule short bursts of improvement activity to advance your fix effort. One approach could be to block out Friday mornings so that everyone on the team knows that this time is dedicated to improvement. Having the event blocked out means that everyone is aware, and your engineers and techies can still carry out their day job.
Successful Kaizen events play an important role in changing the culture of an organisation towards Operational Excellence. Celebrating the results of the event with the team and publicising their achievements to the broader organisation are actions that help drive this cultural change.
Here’s our suggested approach for using kaizen thinking on your own, or with your team:
- Start with training. Everybody needs to know what Kaizen is and how it can benefit the workplace culture.
- Keep an ideas log of things that seem inefficient or that you’d like to improve. It’s often easier to spot these in the heat of the moment than in cold reflection.
- Once a month, spend some time identifying areas where there is “waste” in the way you or your team is working. Use your ideas log as input, but also think about the wider picture and your overall ways of working. Go through each of the types of waste listed above as a checklist. How could “waste” be eliminated? How could things be improved?
- measure impacts. By keeping track of the beneficial results from the kaizen process, the company is more likely to continue investing in it and sustaining it.
- If the changes affect others, be sure to consult them about the new arrangements, and listen to their comments!
Kaizen is a philosophy that supports continuous, incremental process changes that sustain a high level of efficiency. It is a long term strategy and the goal is to develop the capabilities and confidence of workers. At the organisational level, kaizen can be a powerful team-approach that harnesses suggestions and involvement from people at every level. Wide participation can serve to improve moral and satisfaction as much as it improves production, costs, and other hard measures. If you choose to bring kaizen into your workplace, you’ll be surprised at how big an impact small changes can make, and how the culture of continuous improvement can thrive.