Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
Kaizen Promotes a Goal-Oriented Approach to Process Improvement
Kaizen promotes problem-solving. Unlike many organizational fads that try to motivate people, such as empowerment sessions and quality slogans, it actually makes a difference.
Kaizen focuses on quick wins. One benefit of Kaizen versus other process improvement methodologies is the fact that it encourages you to make progress toward goals, as it's a continuous improvement methodology. Following it for a while and then quitting is contrary to the principle of continuous improvement. However, a shift in focus from greater quality to leaner operations and back again may occur.
When it involves people at all levels, Kaizen allows process improvement ideas to bubble up when they would otherwise be ignored by frontline managers. However, if managers impose changes and employees think it is simply to make them work harder, you will get push back. This is especially true if the Kaizen process adds paperwork, data recording, and additional operational steps while management is expecting the same time cycle from employees.
Alternating between “lean” and quality improvement methodologies under the umbrella of Kaizen allows you to make progress in all areas without the complexity and higher risk of failure that comes when you try to combine both methodologies together in one project, a common problem found with Lean Six Sigma.
Training Can Be a Main Disadvantage
The Kaizen method of training everyone in lean or Kaizen concepts takes everyone out of their daily jobs, and not all of them will use it. Kaizen blitzes for rapid improvements do not give sufficient time to train people in Kaizen.
If you demand Kaizen events without giving people the time to do so, it likely won’t happen. The small wins may not be what you need to make the most difference when it comes to throughput or quality, and local optimums do not mean that the whole system is optimized.
When you tie Kaizen to key performance indicators (KPIs), you will get projects that are focused on those KPIs but not on the broad and deep changes that dramatically improve the organization over the long term. Be careful that your “lean” and Kaizen methods don’t wind up demanding that people do more in less time. Instead, only increase your expectations of output if you have actually removed motions, steps, and actions from their work standards. You want to make sure you do not add in too much extra stress into the work environment.
There’s a tendency to use the Japanese terms for Kaizen from the Toyota Production System when English terms work just as well and require less education. Using English terms would mean no disrespect, as the whole system was developed by William Deming based on the plan-do-study-adjust (Shewhart) cycle.
Problems Your Company Might Run Into Using This Method
If one group really sticks to the Kaizen method, it will improve that department but will runs into a wall when other departments don’t join. Broad organizational changes are typically larger than what can be handled by smaller Kaizen teams.
As with any DMAIC method, too many groups fail to spend enough time monitoring the process after the changes—instead, they jump into the next “loop” of the continual process improvement cycle. This means that your operations may slip to old, less efficient processes while you’re making more changes.
Too many Kaizen leaders assume that employee resistance is due to human recalcitrance instead of the fact that people are reluctant to adopt yet another process improvement methodology. This is especially true when someone comes in and says “we need to adopt Kaizen like X company”, ignoring the fact that lean methodologies are very similar to Kaizen. Those who shift from Lean Six Sigma to Kaizen don’t recognize that they are dropping the Six Sigma from their Lean Six Sigma operations. This is doubly true if you’re outright calling the new process improvement methodology “Lean Kaizen.”
If you implement Kaizen on the shop floor or in customer-facing operations but ignore management and the back office, you won’t see the benefits it can produce.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: What are the limitations of kaizen in the manufacturing sector?
Answer: It can run into diminishing returns rather quickly, especially if you just focus on reducing waste or cutting costs and don't look at ideas to improve quality and safety.
Kaizen requires open communication and full support at all levels, and that may not happen in any firm. For example, I've worked in businesses where the best simple tips to improve quality and production came from people working on the shop floor, but management never asked them. They brought in consultants for broad generic team-building or infrastructure changes instead.
Kaizen gives you incremental improvements, but you have to use a different method is you need to dramatically change things. For example, Kaizen could lead to a faster, cheaper version of your current process. It won't invent a whole new technology or convert a business from a manufacturer to a service provider.
Question: What are the disadvantages of Kaizen?
Answer: You have to train people to implement it. The small projects make a big difference over time, but it may not be enough if you need to dramatically cut costs or improve quality right now. It isn't good enough for major changes needed, such as when a business needs to reinvent itself from manufacturing to being a services provider.
Question: What are the limitations of Kaizen?
Answer: Limited improvements in quality are seen, though you can make systemic changes specifically to improve quality. Once a system is lean and efficient, there's not much more you CAN do. Flexible operations like a job shop/machine shop or pack/repack organization can seek to make each station as clean, efficient and well maintained as possible but Kaizen tends to work best in assembly lines and routine service delivery.
If you want to see the best performance, management has to be willing to train and empower people. Not all will do that. And in a high turnover business or one that relies on a lot of day labor, that's not practical.
© 2017 Tamara Wilhite