Kaizen in Lean Manufacturing

Creating a Kaizen culture in your workplace helps make improvement a core part of your business, systemizing a strategy to keep you ahead of your competition. Making continuous improvement a standard business process combats the tendency to only make improvements after something in your process goes wrong. It helps you to be proactive instead of reactive.

What is Kaizen?

Kaizen is the lean manufacturing term for continuous improvement and was originally used to describe a key element of the Toyota Production System. In production, Kaizen describes an environment where companies and individuals proactively work to improve the manufacturing process.

Masaaki Imai, the father of Kaizen, emphasized that the idea begins with problem identification. Companies need to know where there is the most opportunity for impactful improvement before truly effective action can be taken. Having a clear understanding of the challenges in your production system will provide a strong foundation for Kaizen. Plant floor employees, who have the best understanding of their production processes, can collaborate to share information and create valuable insights about where Kaizen efforts will be most fruitful.

Kaizen and Lean Manufacturing

One way in which Kaizen can be applied in the workplace is through Kaizen events. Each Kaizen event involves a series of steps: planning, acting, reviewing, and adjusting. Over time, repeating these steps across multiple events provides a series of incremental improvements to the manufacturing process. When many Kaizen events are carried out in a short period, it is sometimes referred to as a Kaizen Blitz.

Be careful that your Kaizen events don’t focus only on small, isolated improvements. While these add up over time and are certainly important, it is also important to identify larger areas of improvement. Kaizen is best implemented as a combination of small steps and long-term projects.

Kaizen events are relatively common at companies that practice lean manufacturing. But these events are only a portion of the complete Kaizen process. Traditionally companies have focused on a project based path to change. Organizations that work toward a state of constant improvement understand that Kaizen events are a tool that allows them to focus resources and employees on process improvements. By understanding the current process and the future state goals you can implement Kaizen. Creating a corporate culture of continuous improvement will allow you to adapt to a changing marketplace and exceed customer expectations.

A critical component of Kaizen is an unbiased view of the current state of the manufacturing process.

Particularly when companies are profitable and customers are generally satisfied, changes to any process can seem both a waste and a risk. There may be bias against change when the people who created a process are the same people who need to continuously change the process. In order to overcome this, it is necessary to understand the current process, particularly any shortcomings. By studying, understanding, and documenting the current process you can identify areas that would benefit from change.

Note: It is extremely important to focus on change and discard any thoughts of blame. Too many companies waste time determining who was “at fault”. Successful companies focus on making the process better.

Once the current state is understood and documented and the future state defined you are then ready to create and implement your Kaizen improvement process. The most successful improvements involve everyone who is part of the process that is being changed. The actual steps and methods of changing aren't the focus of Kaizen. There are several tested and documented methods of improving a process. Which tools and techniques are suitable for a specific situation must be determined by all the factors involved whether it is a SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Die), Kanban, or Poka-Yoke that will best address the issue; until they are implemented they aren't improving the process.

The nature of Kaizen actually becomes most evident after a process change. By benchmarking the process before the change and comparing the results after, the net effect can be measured. Often, after a project is completed, everyone involved moves on to other issues. Creating a company culture of continuous, incremental improvement will increase the potential for success. Through a continuous cycle of identification, inspection and implementation you have the ability to become a little better every day.

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Benefits of Kaizen

Someone is going to come up with a better, faster or cheaper way. It will either be you or your competition. Look at your lead time from 5 years ago and compare that to how you perform today. Chances are you're a lot faster, now. When you look ahead 5 years, will you be where you need to be? Adaptation of a philosophy of continuous improvement and Kaizen will help you:

  • Proactively improve production
  • Reduce manufacturing waste
  • Increase employee involvement
  • Increase customer satisfaction

Companies that continuously improve, continuously succeed.

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