After WWII, Americans brought in experts to help rebuild the Japanese industry. One of the approaches introduced was the small-step work improvement method developed in the USA for the production of war equipment. The small-step work improvement approach encourages organizations to introduce small improvements that can be implemented on the same day, given the lack of time and resources for large and innovative changes during wartime.
Kaizen translates to ‘change for the better’ in everyday Japanese language use. However, the word has taken the meaning of a concept, strategy, or measures of implementing continuous improvement. The Japanese further defined Kaizen as they implemented it in manufacturing.
As part philosophy, it aims to build a culture where all employees, from the managers to the manufacturing plant employees, are actively engaged in suggesting and implementing improvements to the company. As part action plan, it aims to organize events where teams of employees at all levels focus on improving specific areas within the company.
One of the most successful implementations of Kaizen is the Toyota ion System (TPS). Among the principles that the TPS values and practices is continuous improvement. Through Kaizen, the company works to improve its business operations continuously, always driving for innovation and evolution. The objective of TPS is to design a flexible process that delivers the required results smoothly. To achieve this, it has to eliminate inconsistency, overburden, and waste. The TPS inspired the conceptualization of lean manufacturing or the lean production method.
Continuous, or now called continual improvement process (CIP), are efforts that seek incremental improvements over time but does not discount breakthrough improvement all at once. CIP is now incorporated in many management systems, including business process management, quality management, and project management.
Since Kaizen is a periodically continuing activity, certain tools and techniques can be used to implement it. One technique is the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) management cycle method. It is an iterative four-step method, also known as the Deming cycle, that supports continual improvement of processes and products. W. Edwards Deming was an American engineer and management consultant who worked with the leaders of the Japanese industry after WWII.
When implementing a Kaizen activity, the activity goes through the following phases:
- Plan – the members of the team establish objectives and processes required to deliver the desired results.
- Do – the team implements the plan, applies the new process, tests the changes, and gathers data to be measured in the next phase.
- Check – the data gathered is checked, evaluated, and compared to expected outcomes. The testing process is also evaluated and compared with the original test created in the planning phase. If the PDCA cycle is implemented multiple times, the data is monitored for trends.
- Act/Adjust – the team identifies issues, inefficiencies, or problems encountered and other opportunities for improvement during the Do and Check phases. Root cause analysis is performed, and the process is adjusted to eliminate the issues. At the end of this phase, the process is better defined, documented, and deployed. The next cycle can now start where the team plans for new objectives and processes.
Kaizen in your project management workflow
Kaizen as an iterative process seems easier to adopt by teams practicing Agile and other iterative methods. For example, some software development teams have merged the Deming cycle with the Scrum approach to address continual improvement. Others are using Kaizen as a mindset to pursue continual improvement and Kanban as the tool to better prioritize work and optimize workflow in a flexible and transparent environment.
Kaizen, however, is not limited to Agile. As a philosophy and an action plan, it can be applied to all project teams using any methodology. For example, the continual improvement process can be applied for every stage in the waterfall model. But more importantly, it highlights the importance of the principle of feedback so that the purpose of efficiency can be attained on a continual and incremental basis.
Kaizen is a culture that every member of a project team can help promote. Every project team member should seek ways to improve their own performance. Each one is encouraged to take ownership of their work, which actually promotes teamwork. As individual team members work on personal improvement, they can also suggest small improvement ideas that are easier to implement, less likely to result in radical changes, and require less resources or capital.