What Is Kaizen and Why Does Your Business Need It?

Contributed content / By Jen McKenzie / 21 May 2019

Kaizen is the Sino-Japanese word for improvement. As a business concept, it draws on the idea of continuous improvement through small and incremental changes. 

Working in the business space frequently involves navigating uncharted territory. Relying on foundational principles can serve as a guard rail, but will only take you so far in achieving your goals.

One characteristic that all successful businesses share is that they always strive to become better. It doesn’t matter if they’re already on top; they will only remain there if they focus on improving even further. 

The concept of kaizen is an excellent method for improving daily operations and achieving a breakthrough in some of your largest business challenges. 

Case Study: Toyota

Originally, kaizen started out as one of the most important improvements in car production lines.  

Through the methods of process standardization and constant evaluation, applying kaizen enables faster and more efficient production by introducing small improvements to the process continuously. 

For a specific business example of how this was achieved, let’s take a look at the popular car company Toyota.

When Toyota integrated the concept of kaizen within its business model, the company’s primary goal was to teach management how to view employees from a personal standpoint. They realized that one of the most important aspects of kaizen is the human element. 

The human element of Kaizen

The graphic above breaks down the human element of kaizen into salient points:

  • Every employee matters
  • Employees help with new ideas and improvements
  • Employees are experts at what they do
  • Managers work alongside employees to find solutions

When managers understand their employees’ strengths and weaknesses in the particular realm of their jobs, they’re more equipped to put employees in positions where they can best contribute.

Moving forward, Toyota taught their management to take stock in and deeply trust their employees’ feedback. Rather than punishing employees when something went wrong, Toyota managers asked employees to explain the situation in an effort to resolve it. 

Toyota managers used this tactic to determine whether an employee was struggling due to inadequate training, manufacturing defects, or simply having a bad day. 

Rather than just delegating, the managers were there to help and work alongside everyone else. Developing a strategy collaboratively can improve production the next time. 

Applying this concept has boosted Toyota’s overall productivity exponentially for decades. When employees feel comfortable approaching their managers, they’re more likely to express new ideas about how to optimize the manufacturing process. 

While working on production firsthand, employees often come across new measures to reduce the amount of time and materials needed to get things done. 

Cutting unnecessary costs helps companies increase not only employee productivity and morale, but also profitability by streamlining material usage.

All of these benefits were made possible by Toyota’s realization of just how valuable of assets their employees were. Their staff members are the most qualified to propose new process improvements. After all, since they are the experts on their work itself, they’re uniquely positioned to find ways to perform it even better

Why Would You Need Kaizen in Your Business Operations? 

If saving money and becoming a more productive company as a whole is not incentivizing enough, there are even more reasons why the kaizen mindset helps businesses achieve greater success. 

Reason #1: Kaizen Helps You Think Outside of the Box 

A core kaizen principle is to never accept assumptions. In business, we often get stuck in our ways unintentionally. After achieving success through a system, we tend to put too much faith in it going forward.

Systems that truly work actively adapt and evolve alongside those of their competitors.

Applying this principle to your business can force yourself and your team to think outside of the box. This is the first step in a process called forward thinking. 

Keep an eye on your competitors. It’s important to always know what other businesses are doing so yours can do it better. This is probably the main reason your product or service began to thrive in the first place: you saw a need within the market and how competitors were failing to deliver, so you decided to supply that need.

Use this same principle of the theory of evolution within your business to enhance your internal processes.

List of ways to use Kaizen for your business

Even the tiniest changes - like purchasing artificial intelligence software to optimize daily paperwork - can make the biggest difference in team productivity. 

Reason #2: Use Kaizen to Know How to Create Success from Failure 

Another principle of kaizen is the concept to always move forward even through failure. 

Failing forward is the practice of turning every failure into a stairstep towards your goal. Failure is never an end, only just another avenue to success. 

Thomas Edison said it best:

“I didn't fail. I just found 999 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.” 

Through the kaizen mindset demonstrated by Toyota, management found that by engaging employees when they fail, managers were able to help employees put actionable plans in place to lead to greater productivity and business stability. 

Creating positive outcomes from negative situations, the management created a healthy company culture which demonstrated that employees could speak out when they are struggling and receive help. 

Reducing fear creates greater productivity and company loyalty among employees. 

Reason #3: Stay on Top of Trends with Kaizen

By learning how to fail forward, businesses put themselves in a position where risks are far less costly. 

Research trends carefully before investing in a new system. Embracing the idea of “failing forward” reduces the risk of wasting money. Find a way to make trends work for you—even when they are failing for everyone else. 

Several trends have been sweeping the marketplace in 2019, especially in marketing. Apps, social media content organizers, artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) systems are huge this year. 

Many of these trends require newer technology, which scares off smaller businesses who don’t know how to fail forward or continuously improve. 

Implementing kaizen allows you to explore new trends without fear because you know how to find a way to implement them successfully. It just takes a little time and elbow grease. 

Reason #4: Use Kaizen to Create Team Unity 

Team unity is absolutely crucial when it comes to making a business work. The word corporation has everything to do with corporate cooperation among your employees.

The kaizen mindset places people far above profits and prioritizes an investment in education and confidence building to improve employees’ job performance. 

Kaizen is at the center of the concept of lean leadership. Lean leadership is a form of management which encourages managers to get to know employees on a personal level. By getting to know employee personalities, managers take on the role of mentors to employees. 

Mentors can help employees develop the skills and attributes they need to achieve occupational and personal goals on a daily basis. As they collaborate with employees to problem solve, management learn coping mechanisms and build skills to better serve the business and enhance their own personal lives.

Applied to a team setting, businesses can use kaizen to create unity. Unified teams are more productive because they engage in cross-departmental projects which play on the strengths of their team members. The greatest benefit of all is empowering team members to fortify each other’s strengths and minimize weaknesses. 

In a business sense, this process ultimately leads to greater profitability and productivity as well as greater and healthier company morale.

Continuous Learning for Continuous Success 

Whether you are a Fortune 500 or a small person operation, kaizen can be an extremely lucrative mindset to implement in your business 

Heralding in the concept of lifelong continuous learning and development is a wonderful mindset for individuals to hold well into their 80’s. Allowing this attitude to infiltrate business is extremely wise. 

Kaizen helps us build upon the core principles which made a business outstanding to begin with. Going further, it allows us to constantly evolve and improve our systems. 

Embracing a mindset that seeks to consistently move forward instead of getting stuck on perfectionism creates an atmosphere primed for growth and business sustainability for generations to come. No wonder the kaizen mindset and lean leadership are on such a rapid rise in the success of modern businesses.

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