What are the Kaizen principles? (The Kaizen method explained)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 25 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning 'good change', and businesses and organisations across the globe use the term 'Kaizen principles' to describe a philosophy that encompasses this concept. This philosophy emphasises constant improvement in all areas of a business, at all levels of its hierarchy, giving it a competitive advantage. Understanding these principles can help you implement this strategy in your own workplace and promote a culture of constant progression. In this article, we explore the Kaizen principles and discuss the benefits of instilling them within a business.

What are the Kaizen principles?

The Kaizen principles describe a corporate philosophy that organisations use to foster a culture of constant improvement in terms of performance and efficiency. Here's a closer look at each of the 10 principles:

1. Improve everything continuously

This is the core tenet of the Kaizen method. With their commitment to improving everything continuously, adopters of the Kaizen method question the best practices of their organisation to uncover areas for potential improvement. Kaizen encourages the questioning of old habits, even if they work well, to promote constant improvement. Toyota, a well-known car manufacturer, uses Kaizen to maximise quality in its production system and eliminate waste. It uses a technique known as the 'five whys' to identify the root causes of a problem and stimulate continuous improvement. Here's an example of how the technique works:

Problem

An employee is late for work.

Five whys

  1. Why: 'I woke up late.'

  2. Why: 'My phone alarm didn't ring.'

  3. Why: 'The battery was dead.'

  4. Why: 'I forgot to charge it.'

  5. Why: 'I was out late with friends and went to sleep as soon as I got home.'

Root cause

Staying up late

2. Retire old concepts

The world, the economy and individual markets are in constant flux. It's essential that people who practise Kaizen challenge preconceptions and continually update ideas to help their business remain competitive under these circumstances. The Kaizen method stresses the importance of retiring old concepts, which may no longer be compatible with current business objectives. As a mental exercise, you can look at existing concepts and consider what might occur if you did the opposite. Doing this can provoke new ideas that you might not have previously entertained.

3. Be proactive

Kaizen is a proactive mindset that seeks solutions, not problems. If excuses arise when analysing existing processes and seeking solutions, be innovative and eliminate the excuses. While change tends to invite risk, Kaizen forces professionals to look at things from different angles and be creative in devising solutions and mitigating risks. This attitude can encourage your team's mental energy to move away from excuses, creating an open-minded atmosphere that's conducive to continuous improvement.

4. Eliminate waste

This philosophy helps organisations produce better outcomes by improving performance and by eliminating waste. Organisations using the Kaizen method constantly look for ways to do things more efficiently and reduce waste. The method encourages professionals to see problems, including waste, as opportunities because fixing problems adds value. As a result, if you identify a wasteful process, view this as an opportunity to increase the company's profit by addressing the issue.

Read more: Effective vs. efficient: definitions, differences and tips

5. Maintain a positive outlook

Being optimistic is one of the central messages of the Kaizen philosophy; it's easier to find solutions with a positive attitude, while a negative thinker may only see problems. Actively promoting positivity can impact a workforce and the entire company. A strong, positive attitude increases employee satisfaction and drives them to be innovative rather than unmotivated. Ensuring employees understand how valuable their contributions are to the business can make them feel valued, positive and motivated to deliver more value.

6. Know that adversity makes you stronger

This is another aspect of reframing things in a positive manner. By viewing challenges as opportunities for the company to grow bigger, smarter and stronger, you can approach them more effectively. Each time a business overcomes a problem, it gains valuable knowledge on how to avoid that problem in the future. If the organisation you work for views obstacles positively, you can begin to address challenges more proactively and, as a result, accelerate the rate of growth.

7. Use creativity before money

Kaizen is about changing the mindset of the staff and leaders in an organisation so that they can use positivity and creativity to solve problems rather than use additional resources. Sometimes it's necessary to gain outside help or purchase new resources, but it makes more sense to first utilise internal resources. This means using the creativity of senior staff and employees to think of solutions before resorting to additional spending. With the other Kaizen principles in place, creativity can become more abundant as you're motivating your staff and helping them to think positively.

Related: The 6 Agile methodology steps for project management

8. Get informed opinions from various sources

While using Kaizen allows flexibility in decision making, its practitioners don't make decisions lightly. This principle stresses the importance of gathering insights from multiple, well-informed sources before making high-consequence decisions. This significantly reduces the likelihood of making poor decisions, for if there's a consensus on how to do something, it's likely a good idea. Also, a consensus means that you're probably closer to the objective truth because a single opinion is subjective, while a consensus of subjective opinions constitutes the objective.

Related: What is Waterfall project management and why is it useful?

9. Make decisions informed by data

Using data to influence your decision-making process is a powerful way to reduce errors and constantly improve. Collating and analysing data is an excellent way to uncover trends that may otherwise go unnoticed. It's also essential to measure the performance of any changes you implement to ensure they're working well. Establishing metrics before you action any changes enables you to define success and failure and to act accordingly. Using data can help to eliminate the risk of human bias and assumptions, creating an efficient and goal-oriented decision-making process.

10. Learn through action

The term 'phronesis' is a Greek word that means 'the wisdom of lived experience'. This is what Kaizen promotes because it's a philosophy that favours action and reduces procrastination. The philosophy suggests that there is only a certain amount of learning and planning that you can do and that taking action and practising validated learning is the only real way to make progress.

In Japan, professionals associate another term with Kaizen: 'genchi genbutsu'. This literally means 'real location, real thing'. This common saying encompasses the same core meaning: taking action, experiencing the real thing and not just the theory, is what leads to development.

Related: Different types of project management methodologies

7 wastes of Kaizen

Professionals use the idea of the seven wastes, or muda, of Kaizen to eliminate waste when embodying the Kaizen principles. Here are the seven areas of waste:

  1. Delays: this refers to any time that customers spend waiting and not receiving value. Focusing on delivering products and services to the market faster can save a company time that it can otherwise use to generate revenue.

  2. Overproduction: creating too many units of a product can lead to numerous issues, such as excess inventory and may result in more waste. These problems mean that businesses spend more on storage space and preservation, which doesn't benefit the business or the customer.

  3. Over-processing: this describes the act of performing too much work on a product, to the extent where time and money go to waste. If a customer has certain expectations, going beyond these expectations may be wasteful.

  4. Transportation: you can optimise various elements of the transportation process to reduce waste in areas such as delays, damages and loss. Moving products always risks damaging them, and delays are sometimes inevitable, but studying your logistics can often reveal opportunities for improvement.

  5. Unnecessary motion: this refers to the unnecessary movement of products during the production phase, causing wear and tear, and to the unnecessary motion of people and machines. Excessive movement can cause repetitive strain injuries for staff, and the overuse of machines may cause damage, so removing unnecessary motion is a good way to reduce waste.

  6. Inventory: items in an inventory don't add value, whether they're raw materials or finished goods. Looking at an inventory and devising ways to generate value is an effective way to reduce the time it spends in storage locations.

  7. Product defects: defective products can have a significant negative impact on profitability and may even double the cost of a single product if a replacement is necessary. Using the 'five whys' can be a useful way to uncover the cause of defects and find an appropriate solution.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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