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Lean Kaizen

What is the meaning of kaizen? No translation is perfect, but kaizen is a Japanese word that roughly translates to ‘change for the good’.

Learning how to implement kaizen concepts properly goes a long way towards improving your job satisfaction in a Lean company. Why? Because you might be asked to participate in a kaizen blitz, a Lean event, a rapid improvement workshop (RIW), a rapid improvement project (RIP), or something else with a similar name. These all fall into one big bucket that covers the most common way people think of kaizen concepts: putting together a team of people from several work areas to do a week-long project to reduce waste or improve a process’s flow.

Kaizen means something more if you use the literal translation. Some organizations apply this definition of kaizen, using the word to as a generic term to mean any improvement.

So, you might be asked to do some quick ‘kaizen’ (used as a verb) to your process, which could mean just making a daily improvement, or it could mean being in a rapid improvement workshop. Kaizen is also used as a noun. ‘Joe, we need to get some more kaizen in the final assemlby area if we are going to hit our targets.’ Make sure you know how your company uses the term to prevent confusion.

The first use of the term (as a week-long event) is the more common one in efforts to reduce waste. Kaizen events consist of a small team going after improvements on a specific process or in a single work area. These projects are structured and follow a well-defined kaizen process. The week-long period is long enough to allow the overhaul of an area with dramatic results, but short enough to be able to actually get people to participate. These projects are done both on the shop floor and in the Lean office.

At the beginning of the week, the team usually receives training ‘just-in-time’. Getting the training right when it is needed keeps people from forgetting what they learned. Kaizen training is generally between half a day and a full day; the team then spends a day or so going over the area with a fine-toothed comb to come up with a plan.

At the end of the project, the team follows up the project with a kaizen report out. (For some people, this sunset report is also accompanied by fear of public speaking.) This presentation allows the team to communicate the changes it made to those employees that were not involved in the kaizen, but who will be affected by its outcome. It’s also a chance to celebrate the success of the kaizen in front of the company’s leadership.

That leaves about two full days and change to actually do the improvements. Often, the full days are really full. It is not uncommon to see teams working late into the night. (See the article on this subject under ‘Related posts” at the end of this post.)

Kaizen teams should always try to keep their follow-up lists to a minimum. This is especially true on the shop floor. Teams often shut down production for a time while making changes. A long list means that getting things back up and running will be delayed, or that the operation will be hobbling along until all the follow-up action items are complete.

Lean office kaizens will often have bigger lists than shop floor (gemba) kaizens, since it frequently takes longer to make changes in administrative areas-especially when software is involved. Information technology has trouble making changes to computer programs overnight. Lean office kaizens also tend to impact customers more directly than shop floor events. Notifying customers of changes can delay implementation.

The use of kaizen is spreading. What started out as primarily a shop floor tool has spread, as mentioned above, to the Lean office. You will also hear about restaurant kaizen, service kaizen, and even retail kaizen. Education kaizen, military kaizen, government kaizen are also on the rise.

In great companies, kaizen is not an isolated event. Instead, it becomes a continuous improvement culture where frontline Lean employees identify waste and make immediate process improvements.


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