Kaizen Is Not Just Change, It Is Improvement

Figure X-1 “Kaizen” in Japanese kanji characters. Figure X-1 “Kaizen” in Japanese kanji characters. Image by Creative Safety SupplyOpens in new window

The two-syllables word Kaizen is translated from Japanese in a number of ways, most simply as “change for the better.” The Japanese characters (“Kai” means “change,” and “zen” means “good”) are shown in Figure X-1 above.

A Kaizen is a small improvement that is made by those who do the work. It is a small, low-cost, low-risk improvement that can be easily implemented.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. — Charles Darwin

Kaizen is an ongoing methodology and philosophy for challenging and empowering everyone in the organizationOpens in new window to use their creative ideasOpens in new window to improve their daily work.

The word Kaizen, the way it is typically used, is synonymous with the phrase “continuous improvement.” It is a strange-looking word that might seem a little difficult to pronounce. Said out loud, it sounds a lot like “try-zen,” and we can equate it with the idea that we can try to improve and make things more zen-like in the workplace.

Yes, Kaizen leads to a calmer, better-organized, more productivity workplace that provides better patient care in the health sector and improved customer satisfaction in other sectors.

The history of Kaizen emerged from the technique called TPS (Toyota Production SystemOpens in new window). In 1950 Toyota implemented circles leading to development “ focus in continuous improvement in qualityOpens in new window, technology, processes, company, culture, productivity, safety and leadership.

These continual small improvements (Kaizen) add up to major benefits, resulting in faster delivery, lower costs, and greater customer satisfaction.

The ten (10) principles of Kaizen are as follows:

  1. Say no to status quo, implement new methods and assume they will work.
  2. If something is wrong, correct it.
  3. Accept no excuses and make things happen.
  4. Improve everything continuously.
  5. Abolish old, traditional concepts.
  6. Be economical. Save money through small improvements and spend the saved money on further improvements.
  7. Empower everyone to take part in problems solving.
  8. Before making decisions, ask “why” five times to get to the root cause.
  9. Get information and opinions from multiple people.
  10. Remember that improvement has no limits. Never stop trying to improve.

Many organizations embrace the idea of Kaizen and practice its specific principles, but they call it Continuous ImprovementOpens in new window, Process Excellence, or Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA)Opens in new window instead of Kaizen. That is perfectly fine; what we call it does not matter as much as the customer satisfaction, staff engagement, and organizational improvements that we achieve with these practices.

The Kaizen practices cover many elements as shown by the Kaizen umbrella in Figure X-2 below.

Figure X-2. Umbrella Kaizen Figure X-2. Umbrella Kaizen

Generally Kaizen activities include the next basic pattern:

  • Discover the Improvement Potential
  • Analyze the current Methods
  • Generate Original Ideas
  • Implement the Plan
  • Evaluate the new Method.

These five steps include activities which the multidisciplinary groups join with an only one goal — a continuous improvement. An effective Kaizen approach is about making improvements that are connected to measurable results and a deeper purpose.

Beyond the measurable results, Kaizen organizations value the personal and organizational learning that results from the improvement process, as well as the personal pride and satisfaction of all who are involved.

Kaizen Is Not Just Change, It Is Improvement

With Kaizen, we want more than a lot of activity and change; we really want improvement and learning. Improvement comes when we can state that things have been made better in one or more dimensions, including safety, quality, productivity, or having a less frustrating workplace.

Not all changes are necessarily improvements. For example, a change to a process that makes it harder for nurses to gather the supplies needed to start an IV would likely not be considered an improvement, because it would delay patient care and cause more work for the nurses.

Kaizen involves finding a better way to do your work and changing the method you use to do your work. It is not about cutting corners. If you cut a step out of your work, you will want to talk to your coworkers to ensure that cutting out that step does not negatively impact the patient or someone else in the process.

A planned improvement should be proposed as a hypothesis to be tested in practice. For example, a materials management team might propose. “If we rearrange the clean utility room to stock items in the order of their computerized order number, then it reduces the amount of time required to restock rooms each day.”

After testing that change for three days, the materials management team might conclude that they, indeed, saved 30 minutes per day, in addition to the hours spent rearranging the first utility room in why they tested their change. As their test confirmed their expectations, the materials team might decide to share this change with other units.

Large, complex organizations, such as those in healthcare, need to be aware that one area’s improvement may cause side effects in other areas. For example, if the change benefitted materials management but made work more difficult for the nurses who take items (often urgently needed) from the supply rooms, then, when looking at the big picture, the change might not be an improvement after all.

Kaizen = Continuous Improvement

Again, one common translation of Kaizen generally means “change for the better.” These changes can include team projects, such as “Kaizen Events” or “Rapid Improvement Events” (RIEs). There is certainly a time and place for these events, which typically occur over the course of four or five days, but, as Kaizen guru Masaaki Imai emphasizes, Kaizen should be practiced by everybody, everywhere, every day.

Kaizen should not be just a one-time flurry of ideas, nor should it be just a one-time reaction to an organization facing financial pressures.

A so-called “burning platform” or crisis might prove motivating to some, but the pressure of a crisis might also harm creativity and have people hold back ideas if they fear they could be associated with job cuts that might occur in a tough economic environment. Ideally, the crisis would be an opportunity to learn and practice Kaizen methods that would continue even after the crisis has subsided.

In many large organizations, employees can feel intimidated by the overwhelming number of people with whom they must coordinate to make large-scale improvements. But Kaizen encourages employees to start with small changes that do not require coordinating with a large number of people—changes focused at the worker level and the space in which their work is performed.

In a Kaizen approach, we do not start by trying to improve what others do. Instead, we start by improving what we individually do. Start with something that is quick and easy.

Often, a good place to start is simply moving something in the workspace closer to the work, making each day easier. Once benefits accrue from a few small improvements, motivation and confidence will grow, allowing people to tackle more difficult, more time-consuming improvements. The best way to get started is to make it quick and easy and then just do it.

Kaizen = Engaging Everybody in Their Own Change

The Kaizen philosophy assumes that our way of life—be it our working life, our social life, or our home life—deserves to be constantly improved.— Masaaki Imai

Kaizen allows leaders to get everybody involved in continuous improvement—this means front-line staff as well as leaders at all levels. Kaizen is not an approach that is limited to managers or improvement specialists from a central department.

Kaizen is for everyone. Kaizen is the improvement of anything, anywhere. When applied in organizations, Kaizen is a way to improve the way the work is performed, while also improving employee morale. When embraced as a philosophy, people inevitably find opportunities to apply Kaizen in their personal lives and work lives, at home and on the job.

    Research data for this work have been adapted from the manual:
  1. Mark Graban, Joseph E. Swartz. Healthcare Kaizen: Engaging Front-Line Staff in Sustainable Continuous Improvement.