We’ve all heard it, we’ve all even tried it, but what exactly is it?
“Kaizen (改善): Japanese for “improvement” or “change for the better.”
“Kaizen is a Japanese word constructed from two ideographs, the first of which represents change and the second goodness or virtue. Kaizen is commonly used to indicate the long-term betterment of something or someone (continuous improvement)…”
Kaizen, or “change for the better”, seems to have become a colloquial expression in the manufacturing and transportation industry of today. As a logistics professional, I’ve heard this word a countless number of times and seen people struggling to do it just as many. Kaizen is one of those lean concepts that is easy to understand but difficult to effectively put into practice. My career has just happened to take me down a path of focusing intently into the eyes of Kaizen, and my hope is just to share what I’ve been learning. We’ve answered the question of “What is it?”, but now let’s dive into the question of “How to do it.”
A helpful place to start talking about Kaizen is to go back and listen to some words from one of its most recognized practitioners, Taiichi Ohno:
“If you are going to do kaizen continuously…you’ve got to assume that things are a mess. Too many people just assume that things are all right the way they are. Aren’t you guys convinced that the way you’re doing things is the right way? That’s no way to get anything done. Kaizen is about changing the way things are. If you assume that things are all right the way they are, you can’t do kaizen. So change something!”
Ohno was also quoted as saying:
“Where there is no Standard there can be no Kaizen”
So with these two truths in hand, I think we can set up the foundation of Kaizen as:
1) Define a standard.
2) Change the standard!
There is obviously some tension between those two foundations, right? There is something critical about having a standard, yet the very next second you need to throw the standard out and try something new. How do you find the balance between defining current state and moving towards future state? How much time should you spend defining the current state if you can already see future ideas for change? The more I’ve thought about these questions, the more I’ve realized that Kaizen is messy! It’s like some sort of never ending struggle, some tension riddled path of continual challenge, an endless, unforeseeable journey!
Now before I get too far off my point, let me clarify. When we attempt Kaizen, we usually get the part about ‘making changes’ right… but what we don’t always do is make changes that are for the better. Sometimes we just end up making a mess of things. What I’m proposing is that this actually isn’t a bad thing.
Yes, you heard me right.
Making changes that are not for the better isn’t bad. I understand that it’s not beneficial and it won’t improve the process, but it’s not bad. The reason why I believe it isn’t bad is because making mistakes is fundamental to the process of Kaizen! You cannot and will not make the perfect change every time. I would conjecture that the most ground breaking and effective processes in the world are the ones that came through a refining fire of 1,000 other failed attempts. In my mind, the deepest learning comes through failing and then trying again. With that in mind, the only bad thing you can do during Kaizen is to stop pushing forward, to stop changing things and to just give up on improvement.
As I found myself wrestling with this idea of Kaizen (a messy and failure prone path), I began to see the beauty behind it. I think I would go as far as to say that behind all the mess, I could begin to see the Art of Kaizen; the subtle touches of creativity, the drive of inspiration, and a deeper sense of longing for better things. This relentless pursuit of unattainable perfection is what turns the messy into the beautiful, and the chaotic unknown into brilliant processes.
Now before I get lost in the clouds, I want to bring this discussion back down to practical application. How can we teach and train others to Kaizen? To fail and keep failing until they look back and see how far they’ve come?
We have to understand, teach, and most importantly practice Hansei.
“Hansei (反省, “self-reflection”) is a central idea in Japanese culture. Its means to acknowledge your own mistake and to pledge improvement.”
Our changes might seem like they are for the better, but they might actually be raising the water level or creating more waste. Having a deep sense of humility throughout the Kaizen process and following the PDCA cycle is the only way I know of to ensure effective Kaizen is happening consistently with meaningful results. After you have changed a process, measure the results of your change to ensure that real Kaizen actually happened. If you only succeed in changing a person or process, but can’t confirm that the change was for the better, then you haven’t actually achieved Kaizen. When (not if) you get to a place of realizing your changes weren’t for the better, acknowledge your mistake and get back on the Kaizen track.
I’ll wrap up this discussion with both a question and a challenge. What do you believe about Kaizen and how have you seen it play out? Before you spend too much time thinking… my challenge is to go change something, anything, and learn to thrive in the tension of continual improvement!
Written by Colin Willis, Team Lead (Operational Excellence) at LeanCor