As a business leader, staying competitive is always at the forefront of your mind. If competitors outpace you, you could lose market share and customers — and say goodbye to your bottom line.
How do you avoid this undesirable chain of events? Well, one factor that underpins your competitive edge is the effectiveness of your business processes.
Your processes are how you repeatedly produce desirable outcomes — creating products, delivering services, managing personnel, and more. But ineffective processes can lead to inconsistent results, increased expenses, and maybe even reduced revenue.
Keeping your business processes on track takes dedication, thought, and a proven methodology for continuous improvement. One such methodology is kaizen, which we explain in detail below, complete with insights from Jason Morwick, a consultant and author.
What is kaizen?
Kaizen originated in Japan and means “change for the better.” It’s a philosophy and continuous improvement methodology based on the idea that everything can be improved, even things that appear to be fine. Organizations practicing the kaizen methodology focus on improving all business processes, including those that are producing acceptable results.
Many organizations use what are called kaizen “events” to jump-start their continuous improvement efforts. An organization identifies a process that could use improvement and names an event organizer. The organizer then pulls together a cross-functional group of people to focus on solving the problem. These events typically last three to five days, and the group may include employees, suppliers, and even customers.
“A kaizen event ensures the team has dedicated time to really dig into problem areas and generate appropriate solutions to improve a process,” Morwick explains.
Event organizers and employees review the problem, walk through the process, brainstorm solutions, and sometimes even make changes on the spot. Observers then monitor and record what happens when making these changes (called experimenting live), then regroup and discuss what changes to make final.
The manufacturing industry provides a good example of this concept in practice. Kaizen event participants walk through a facility to analyze a manufacturing process, stopping the production or assembly line to ask workers some questions and to brainstorm changes.
If possible, participants make those changes immediately and observe the results. Participants then meet to see which production line changes would make the most sense to implement going forward.
Similarly, in a healthcare kaizen event, hospital staff walk through a typical patient scenario to find improvement areas. Morwick shares an example of one hospital that made physical changes to the workplace to better accommodate patients, including rearranging equipment and staff assignments so that most patients only had to go to one room after being admitted instead of two or three.
“Kaizen is incredibly valuable for generating ideas and making improvements quickly,” says Morwick. “In addition, the methodology lends itself to gaining different perspectives — the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ — since you’re bringing together people from different business areas, often inside and outside the organization. You also get increased employee engagement from including their voices in the event.”
What’s the history behind kaizen?
In the aftermath of World World II, Japan needed a way to recover quickly and efficiently with limited resources. They found help from American engineers and statisticians who worked on a system that found its way into the kaizen methodology we use today.
It was called Plan-Do-Study-Act, or PDSA, and it was designed to test organizational changes to see if they delivered improvement. Note that kaizen predates the popular Six Sigma and lean methodologies.
How can people use kaizen for personal improvement?
Kaizen isn’t just applicable in the business world; you can also use it for personal matters. For example, let’s say your goal is to lose weight.
Morwick says, “To reach that goal, what do you have to do? The answer is typically a combination of eating better and exercising more.” But most people’s response to this recommendation is that they don’t have enough time.
Morwick says that applying kaizen in this regard means taking a step back and looking at what’s consuming your time. “For example, if you’re spending an hour on social media every day, this is likely an activity that you can reduce or eliminate,” he says. “If you cut it out, you can spend that time prepping meals or exercising.”
What are the principles of kaizen?
Kaizen consists of five key principles that guide continuous improvement and kaizen events across the organization:
1. Know your customer
It’s essential to capture the voice of the customer — to understand their needs and perspective. “To create the right products and services and deliver a desirable experience, you must know what they want. This is how you create value,” says Morwick.
2. Let it flow
With kaizen, you aim to eliminate waste from your processes, and it’s everyone’s job to further this goal. “It’s about understanding the value stream — specifically, identifying where in the process you have value-added activities vs non-value-added activities, then making changes accordingly,” Morwick explains.
3. Go to gemba
Translated literally as “the real place,” gemba is often referred to as the spot where the action is.
Morwick says that, essentially, after understanding the process, you can go directly to the areas where you believe issues exist (such as a defect-heavy or bottleneck area), pull together the right people to focus on those areas, and make improvements. This often means, for example, physically going to the shop floor or hospital waiting room.
4. Empower the people
This principle focuses on the human element of continuous process improvement. Morwick notes that you must involve people from across the organization to ensure you consider multiple perspectives and arrive at the best solution.
“Empowerment also means giving the people executing the processes the appropriate resources and direction to not only complete the redesigned process, but also identify and make improvements going forward,” he says.
5. Be transparent
Put simply, you need to develop appropriate metrics to measure performance — and make them visible. “You must be able to measure improvement; otherwise, you won’t know whether your kaizen efforts are successful,” Morwick explains.
What are some tips for executing kaizen events effectively?
Morwick shares a few tips below that you can use in your organization to make the most of kaizen events.
1. Recognize the importance of preparation and facilitation
There’s a misconception that kaizen events don’t require preparation. That’s not the case at all, according to Morwick. In addition, an effective kaizen event requires a strong facilitator who can manage a large group of diverse folks.
“You may even consider assigning multiple facilitators, which often yields better results instead of forcing one facilitator to shoulder the burden,” Morwick says.
Preparation involves mapping the process and gathering data about current performance to generate fruitful discussions. “Don’t expect to gather people in a room with a whiteboard and hope for the best,” Morwick says. “You need appropriate data and a clear format for how event meetings should proceed.”
2. Select the right team members
When you’re putting people together for a kaizen event, it’s critical that you choose the right people. You already know it’s important to get people who are close to the problem, but you also need people in leadership positions who are empowered to make decisions.
“Knowing where a problem is and even how to fix it isn’t enough. It takes someone with authority to ensure the solution is actually approved and implemented,” Morwick explains.
3. Ensure process changes are supported with the right resources
Leadership isn’t the only important aspect to consider for a kaizen event. “You may have authority to enact changes to a process, but that won’t matter if you lack the access or resources needed to make those changes a reality,” says Morwick.
Resources include budget, staffing, third-party assistance, and so on. Recall the hospital example Morwick shared above. As part of its process changes, the hospital made physical changes to the building, which meant breaking into drywall and removing structural elements. That required outside assistance from a third party with appropriate expertise.
4. Handle external parties with care
A thorough kaizen event will include outside parties, such as customers and suppliers. Keep in mind that you likely won’t need (or want) to include these parties throughout the event — only when relevant.
A five-day kaizen event may involve suppliers coming in for activities on the second day and customers coming in for activities on the third day. You want their feedback since they’re part of the process or are impacted by the outcomes, but you don’t want them to hear all the ins and outs of your internal operations.
“Considering intellectual property and trade secrets, I highly recommend having customers and suppliers sign NDAs before participating in a kaizen event,” says Morwick. “You want to protect your company’s interests as much as possible.”
5. Always follow up on process changes
After a kaizen event is complete, you’re not finished. Always follow up to evaluate whatever solution or fixes you’ve put in place. “Today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems. What may work today may need improvements next year or even next quarter,” says Morwick.
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