How to build a continuous improvement plan using kaizen

The kaizen business philosophy of gradually improving processes, productivity and profit by involving all employees is still highly relevant in today’s work environment. Here’s how to build a continuous improvement plan using kaizen principles.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the global economy, affecting businesses and people in unprecedented ways. The speed at which organizations and individuals have been able to adapt in order to continue with a semblance of normalcy is largely thanks to the availability of digital tools and smart software. As a result, the demand for advanced technologies such as AI, automation, machine learning and the cloud has fast-tracked digital transformation within most industries, including manufacturing. Such large-scale efforts at continuous improvement (CI) are impressive but have also revealed operational shortcomings. To achieve a sustainable digital transformation, manufacturers need to consider an integrated approach that is both lean and smart, one that embraces a continuous improvement plan using kaizen.


Breaking down continuous improvement and kaizen

Kaizen is a Japanese term that can be defined as ‘‘change for the better’’. Its application as a business philosophy essentially translates to continuous process improvement and focuses on how to involve all employees in improving operational processes, productivity and profit through greater efficiency.

The Toyota Production System (TPS) is world famous for its use of continuous improvement and kaizen process to achieve sustainable business success. The basic tenet of kaizen is that improvement is a gradual and methodical process that can only be sustained if it is built into an organization’s culture. Toyota’s embodiment of kaizen within its production system enabled it to create a global company culture that encourages all its employees to look for ways to make their jobs more fulfilling by identifying areas of potential improvement and developing solutions.

Most organizations are aware of CI principles and many companies have embraced the kaizen improvement business philosophy – some more successfully than others. If we consider the recent and ongoing surge in digital transformation as the current chapter in continuous organizational improvement, too many companies are tackling their transitions with an emphasis on the outcomes rather than on the journey. And so, in manic pursuit of greater, digitally enabled efficiencies, decisions are made unilaterally, new software is introduced overnight, teams are fragmented and morale dips, affecting productivity negatively.

The kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement stresses the cultural importance of teamwork, employee engagement, quality, accountability and leadership to create an efficient, unified and standardized workplace that can withstand change through appropriate, steady and inclusive adaptation.


Download the how-to guide: Driving employee engagement on the CI journey for more on motivating your employees, and creating a sense of ownership and pride.

Download the guide


The principles of kaizen in action

At its philosophical core, kaizen posits that small changes made in the present can have big impacts in the future. In other words, there is no such thing as a too small idea and all employees are invited to suggest improvements of any size at any time. Ideas for improvement focus primarily on the following interconnected areas: equipment use, just-in-time delivery, quality control, standard work and waste.

Standard work is a fundamental discipline of lean manufacturing. In a kaizen context which encourages innovation, problem-solving and solutions, standard work is consistently evolving as better and more efficient production methods are introduced. A just-in-time strategy for example, synchronizes the delivery of raw materials from suppliers with production schedules. This keeps excess inventory to a minimum which reduces waste and helps manufacturers cut their supply storage costs.

A kaizen approach to standard work views digital transformation as a means to continuously improve how things are done. That said, the transition from a traditional corporate production process to a digital operating system (DOS) presents unique challenges that, once again, stress the importance of leadership.


Leading a continuous improvement plan using kaizen

Without an engaged, unified, committed and technologically able body of leaders, organizations will battle to employ kaizen in their digitally geared, continuous improvement strategies. The advantages of kaizen can only be realized if leaders are empowered to empower their employees and invest in their development. Without this, organizations will lack the foundational continuous improvement culture required to support their digital transformation journeys.

A kaizen leader is recognizable by their ability to:

1. Lead by example Continuous improvement requires people to accept the consistency of change and their roles in affecting positive change. This is not an easy ask of most people. A kaizen leader is guided by lean principles, able to participate in and pursue CI initiatives with optimism and energy. Their commitment is unwavering in the face of progress or setbacks, encouraging their people to embrace the same approach and build a strong, CI culture.
2. Communicate clearly and regularly A kaizen leader is someone who understands the importance of consistent communication with their team. Building a CI culture requires talking about CI, its benefits and opportunities, whenever an opportunity arises as well as at regular, structured intervals. Staying on message – and repeating that message –establishes the right mindset among employees and aligns them with the company’s growth objectives.
3. Ask for improvement ideas The power of communication works both ways. When a leader has created an open forum of regular and consistent discussion, they invite ideas and feedback – and respond to them timeously. Crucially, employees feel confident and able to share their improvement ideas, knowing that they and their opinions are valued and supported. In line with the kaizen philosophy, all improvement ideas are welcome which encourages innovative freedom and accountability.
4. Empower employees Continuous improvement, particularly in the midst of a digital transformation, may require skills that sit outside employees’ existing repertoire. A kaizen leader does not leave their team members to flail in the unknown; they provide them with the relevant CI tools, digital upskilling and training opportunities. This emboldens frontline employees to embrace the change that comes with CI – and enables them to identify further opportunities for improvement.
5. Recognize the value in small steps and gradual improvements Kaizen improvements are not necessarily big events or headline projects. A CI driven leader is able to encourage and identify the small, incremental improvement ideas that will consistently evolve the work standard. These small improvements are particularly important when an organization is journeying through a complex and challenging digital transformation as they keep all employees actively engaged in the transition process – and working together towards a successful and sustainable outcome.
6. Promote simple yet effective CI methodologies Stopping and starting various approaches to CI frustrates team members who will eventually step out of the process. A simple improvement methodology helps build a CI culture, allowing everyone to participate meaningfully by identifying improvement opportunities and developing applicable solutions too.

Kaizen improvements follow a set format, typically the PDCA cycle which refers to ‘plan-do-check-act’. This approach helps leaders guide the business improvement process from idea to standardization. The planning stage maps out what function is being improved (and how) so that everyone knows what changes to expect. The doing step is all about implementing the solution which is then checked or evaluated to determine its efficacy. In the final act, the improvement is assessed against results and the company decides either to make it standard or request modifications. If it is the latter, the team leader will start the PDCA cycle all over again.

7. Share ideas, collaborate on solutions and celebrate success Teamwork is core to the kaizen philosophy. Leaders driving successful CI plans hold regular team meetings that include priority discussions on improvement ideas, solutions, changes and learnings and successes.

In addition to gathering the team together (be that in-person or online), kaizen leaders are known to use other channels such as company newsletters or email to effectively communicate and share CI ideas and improvements.

Sharing is a crucial component of building a CI culture that depends on integration and collaboration. It’s not about one team or department being the winners and another being the losers. Continuous improvement is not a competition and thus, it is best led by people who understand the importance of inclusivity, working together and holistic participation. That said, it is important to recognize and reward people who have contributed to improving an organization’s standard work. Celebrating successes motivates employee engagement and can spark further improvement ideas.

Apply continuous improvement processes using kaizen

The reality is that manufacturers racing towards or through digital transformation will battle to achieve their desired outcomes if they lack solid CI cultural cores led by kaizen principles. The kaizen methodology supports a structured and integrated approach to building a sustainable company-wide culture of continuous improvement. It does this through inclusion and collaboration, encouraging all employees to participate in improvement and work together in their – and their company’s – best interests.

While the current economic environment presents a number of unknowns as businesses continue to navigate the impacts of the pandemic, lean manufacturing frameworks that integrate a continuous improvement plan using kaizen can help organizations withstand global events and internal transformations successfully.


Download the eBook: The definitive guide to integrative improvement for more on the holistic, sustainable approach to continuous improvement.

Download the eBook

Def guide


Frequently Asked Questions:

Is kaizen a lean tool?

Like the 5S system, Six Sigma and Kanban, kaizen is a lean tool that helps instill a continuous improvement methodology in production, quality management and organizational culture and safety in the workplace.


How does kaizen improve productivity?

Kaizen aims to improve business productivity by creating more efficient ways of working; encouraging lean manufacturing and just-in-time production (which further reduces stockholding and inventory requirements); total quality management (TQM); reducing waste; and minimizing occupational risks.


Where did kaizen come from?

Kaizen has its origins in post-World War II Japan, where it represented the principles guiding the country’s rebuilding and corporate reorganization process.

Kaizen was exported to the West largely through the efforts of Japanese management consultant Masaaki Imai. His book, Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, remains an essential resource on the foundational principles of kaizen and overall corporate quality improvement.


What does kaizen mean in Japanese?

Kaizen literally means ‘‘continuous improvement’’. It is formed from the Japanese words ‘‘kai’’ (improvement) and ‘‘zen’’ (good).