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The Business Roadmap Called Kaizen

By Seiki "Stan" Hirota

Originally published on LinkedIn September 24, 2019

Kaizen is a Japanese word that is made up of two characters. The first character “Kai” literally means to “Break,” or “Revise.” The second character “Zen” literally means “Goodness” or “Right.” Together, “Kai + Zen” literally means to break or revise the bad habits and improve for the right reasons, and for the good, and now stands for gradual continuous improvement especially in business.

Toyota is the grandfather of Lean Production and brought together the ideas of Kaizen and Lean Production, in the form of what they call “Toyota Production System.” Toyota wanted to create a business improvement system by giving employees responsibility of suggesting ways to work better together and continuously improve the business process that they manage day in and day out.

Toyota worked out most of the details of the Toyota Production System by the early 1960’s while American automakers were just focused on complaints, lobbying and trade disputes to impose high tariffs on foreign imports. Approximately a half a century later, by aggregating small incremental improvements in their process every day, Toyota became the world’s largest automaker by volume in 2008, surpassing General Motors.

Kaizen is a philosophy that anyone can start today. It’s about identifying room for improvements, taking quick trial and error actions on them, striving for better quality and cost to deliver better value to our customers, and empowering people to identify potential room for improvements along with new ways of doing things to improve. The philosophy helps companies gain competitive growth and effectiveness by pushing, being creative and striving to be better. For many successful Japanese companies, Kaizen has become the foundation for effective change.

The word Kaizen might sound foreign to you but the ideas within it are tried-and-true, even for companies here in the US. To help you understand Kaizen and how you can apply it, here are four core principles that comprise the framework:

  1. Know your customer, especially their pain points so that you can create value for them and enhance their experience.

  2. Go to the frontline, which is called the “Gemba” in Japanese. The frontline is where all the business action happens and where the value to the customers are created and delivered

  3. Empower your people to suggest improvements in business, and help enable what they want to accomplish

  4. Let the improvement activities flow to aggregate continuous marginal improvements quickly by eliminating wastes in business called the “Muda” in Japanese

Kaizen is both a foundational philosophy and a roadmap for action. It is applicable as a philosophy, core principles, belief system and mindset to build and improve businesses and companies. It can be applied to a single project or event, but can also be applied to the overall mission of an organization. What is critical is to continue the process for a long period of time, and it will set you apart from competition.

You can apply the concepts of Kaizen to all areas of your personal life, from sports and hobbies, to studies and relationships. By doing so, you’re putting yourself in the mindset to always be positive when you have problems, and to figure ways to work smarter, to create more time to achieve more.

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