The Japanese word Kaizen refers to continuous improvement in small steps. More loosely translated, it means striving for perfection. In the West, the continuous improvement process (CIP) was developed on the basis of Kaizen principles. When it comes to production systems, both terms mean that each and every product, process and sequence offers room for improvement.
More an attitude than a method
Kaizen is not a specific method that can be applied to solve problems – it is a process-oriented approach, a mindset that is not so much an aim in itself, but more a fundamental way of operating and working. Everybody from the worker at his work bench to the executive in his boardroom is committed to continuous improvement in his tasks and duties.
Innovation in Japanese
In the West, the core element of success is innovation. Major changes are intended to generate growth. The ideal image of a stairway that stretches endlessly upwards is seldom achieved. The reason for this is that systems start to degenerate from the moment they are rolled out. In practice, the principle of innovation cannot meet the theoretical demands. Small-scale, continuous (Kaizen) activities are needed if an innovation is to maintain, or even improve, its status and sustain its impact. Kaizen states that it is advisable to start directly with small changes.
People or technology
Western industrial companies talk about improvements in terms of key figures that are all measured by return on investment (ROI). Because this approach shifts the focus onto short-term gains, it inhibits the development of a culture that promotes continuous improvement. While the innovation-based model relies on improvements in technology, Kaizen creates a climate that is conducive to improvement and therefore focuses on people.
Kaizen in production
Kaizen aims to improve production sequences and boost value creation in companies by increasing efficiency in the flow of goods, systematically organising tools and setting up ergonomic work benches, for example. Changes such as these demand both detailed planning and an understanding of the various methods that are used to implement Kaizen. When it comes to putting strategies into practice, it is the flexibility of the system as a whole that determines whether minor changes are prevented or can indeed be rolled out spontaneously.