Continuous Improvement (Kaizen) is an approach which introduces small incremental changes continuously into an organisation in order to improve quality and/or efficiency. The approach works on the principle that employees are the best people to identify opportunities for improvement as they see processes in action all the time. When you use this approach therefore you need to have a culture that encourages and rewards employees for their contribution to the process.
Kaizen can operate at the level of an individual, or through Kaizen Groups or Quality Circles, which are groups specifically brought together to identify potential improvements. This approach very much encourage team working as improvements can form an important part of the team’s aims.
Key features of Kaizen:
- Improvements are based on many, small changes rather than big, cross-origination changes
- As the ideas come from the workers themselves, they are less likely to be radically different for the present practice, and therefore easier to implement
- Small improvements are less likely to require major capital investment than major process changes
- The ideas come from the talents of the existing workforce, as opposed to using specialist consultants or equipment which are usually expensive
- The idea is that all employees continually be seek ways to improve their own performance
- Kaizen helps and encourage workers to take ownership for their work, and can help reinforce team working, thereby improving individual and team motivation
As Kaizen is characterized by many, small improvements over time, it contrasts with the major leaps seen in when radical new technology or production methods have been introduced. Over the years, the sheer volume of Kaizen improvements can lead to major advances for a but managers cannot afford to overlook the need for radical change from time to time – following major technological change or market shifts. For example, the need to outsource from Western Europe to to cheaper centres such as India and China would be unlikely to arise from Kaizen.
Whilst staff suggestions can help to enrich the work for many employees, Kaizen can be seen as an unrelenting process. Some firms set targets for individuals or for teams to come up with a minimum number of ideas in a period of time. Employees can find this to be an unwelcome pressure, as it becomes increasingly difficult to find further scope for improvement. Some firms, especially Japanese-owned, conduct quality improvement sessions in the workers’ own time, which can lead to resentment unless there is appropriate recognition and reward for suggestions.
For Kaizen to be effective there has to be a culture of trust between staff and managers, supported by enlightened management. Good two-way communications and a de-layered organisation supports the approach. Nevertheless, some workers might see the demands as an extra burden rather than an opportunity and it can take time to embed Kaizen successfully into an organisation’s culture.