Kaizen[1] is a Japanese term that is commonly translated as ‘Continuous Improvement’.  The first symbol means change and the second means something like ideal, perfect, or highest good, so together it means striving towards perfection, but with the understanding that because the nature of all things is organic, changing, and impermanent, it is a goal that can only be pursued and not attained once and for all.

Kaizen insinuates that small incremental improvements improve a system, process, or entity just as compound interest improves an investment.  The philosophy of Kaizen is widely accepted as the major contributing factor to the monumental Japanese industrial turnaround following WW2. 

Kaizen has become a popular term in the West because of the success it is credited for in the business world, but Kaizen is meant for personal life as well. 

Personality, as the complete realization of our whole being, is an unattainable ideal.  But unattainability is no argument against the ideal, for ideals are only signposts, never the goal. 

Inferred in Kaizen is to have a smooth running machine that is able to sustain both the owner’s and the employees’ so that they can use their surplus energies and pursue their personal Kaizen.

By improving the process rather than being results oriented Kaizen achieves its intended goal of both TQM - Total Quality Management and TQC – Total Quality Control.

Kaizen’s strength comes from the standardized application of its principles by all levels of interested parties.  Totality and wholeness requires all spokes on the wheel to be inclusive.  Its competitive success in business comes from the attitude that - if we don’t improve our processes, someone else will and their improvement will lead to our impairment[3].  In order for all interested parties to be implicit in that growth and success there must be incentive.  Kaizen is not about management dictation, but having a management leadership whose goals and rewards are synonymous with the benefit of all interested parties – there is no room for ego, functional wholeness is paramount.  Worker suggestion is the most valuable source of input.  Kaizen encourages and rewards the identification of opportunities for improvement. 

Companies that participate in Kaizen statistically enjoy better employee morale, higher job satisfaction, and lower turnover rates compared to their counterparts.  Kaizen ceaselessly focuses on creative solutions instead of outlays of capital with a special emphasis on trying to make these occurrences happen for free as often as possible.  Growth comes from the potency of the process.

Since Kaizen is a gradual process it does not require a huge front-loaded effort to get it moving.  Initial successes promote confidence and instill courage.  Incremental success means sustaining gains is both important and easy to achieve. 

Kaizen in practice always begins with focusing on WASTE ELIMINATION.  Its inherent positive attitude naturally assumes that problems are not negatives, but opportunities for improvement.  Eliminating waste is almost always the easiest of areas to begin with and it develops a solid foundation to build on.

After waste elimination, Kaizen has two major components:

1.     Maintenance

2.     Improvement

For maintenance, management (you) must first establish the rules, regulations, policies, and procedures, then make sure concerned stakeholders follow suit.  The latter is achieved through a combination of discipline and human resource development measures.

For improvement, the stakeholders work towards revising the current standards, improving them, then once established, improve them again, ad infinitum.  Innovation involves a drastic improvement in the existing process and requires large investments. Kaizen signifies small improvements as a result of coordinated continuous efforts by all employees.  


“Continuity of practice is the secret of success”[4]


The most esteemed prize in corporate Japan is the Deming Prize, which is awarded for quality management.

Edwards Deming is widely credited as the man responsible for the successful turnaround of Japan’s industrial complex after WWII.  His 14-point plan is considered sacred in achieving the ultimate in business success.  The 14 points are organic in that each point is individual, but works interconnectedly with the rest (wholeness).  Improvement in one area paves the way for opportunities and improvements in other areas.  Ignoring any of the points is akin to not having a particular spoke on a wheel.

The heart of Deming’s model is based on statistical control (awareness). (revision, revision, revision)

Deming’s 14 Points are:[7]

1.     Create constancy of purpose towards improving products and services, allocating resources to provide for long-range needs rather than short-term profitability.

2.     Adopt the new philosophy for economic stability by refusing to allow commonly accepted levels of delays, mistakes, defective materials and defective workmanship.

3.     Cease dependence on mass in section by requiring statistical evidence of built-in quality in both manufacturing and purchasing functions.

4.     Reduce the number of suppliers for the same item by eliminating those that do not qualify with statistical evidence of quality.  End the practice of awarding business solely on the basis of price. 

5.     Search continually for problems in the system to constantly improve processes.

6.     Institute modern methods of training to make better use of all employees.

7.     Focus supervision on helping people do a better job.  Ensure that immediate action is taken on reports of defects, maintenance requirements, poor tools, inadequate operating definitions, or other conditions detrimental to quality.

8.     Encourage effective two-way communication and other means to drive out fear throughout the organization and help people work more productively.

9.     Break down barriers between departments by encouraging problem solving through teamwork, combining the efforts of people from different areas such as research, design, sales and production.

10.   Eliminate the use of numerical goals, posters, and slogans for the work force that ask for new levels of productivity without providing methods.

11.  Use statistical methods for continuing improvement of quality and productivity, and eliminate work standards that prescribe numerical quotas.

12.   Remove all barriers that inhibit the worker’s right to pride of workmanship.

13.   Institute a vigorous program of education and retraining to keep up with changes in materials, methods, product design and machinery.

14.   Clearly define top management’s permanent commitment to quality and productivity and its obligation to implement all of these principles. 

    The 14 point plan is implemented within the PDCA cycle.

The PDCA Cycle

The PDCA Cycle was created by Walter Shewhart and was made famous by Deming.  The PDCA cycle provides a framework for the improvement of a process or system. 

The model is a continuous cycle that repeats infinitum until an acceptable level of achievement is fulfilled. 


·        Understand and define the problems or opportunities

·        Analyze the problem

·        Identification of causes and effects

·        Make a specific target entailed of smaller short-term goals that compliment or build on each other’s successes

·        Define corrective actions

·        Determine times, resources, costs, etc. 

·        Ensure compliance, commitment, and participation

·        Develop an implementation plan



·        Implement corrective action

·        Begin with bang for the buck achievements first

·        Document actions and observations

·        Collect data as often as possible

·        Create support



·        Confirm results

·        Analyze information

·        Compare results against predicted outcomes of the plan

·        Are the changes occurring as hoped?

·        What was learned?

·        What went wrong?

·        How well is it working?

·        Monitor trends



·        If the results go according to plan, standardize

·        If the results do not go according to plan, repeat the PDCA cycle

·        Document the process and the revised plan

·        Reward based on achievement


The Ramp of Improvement

This is a schematic representation of the use of the PDCA cycle in the improvement process. As each full PDCA cycle comes to completion, a new and slightly more complex project can be undertaken. This rolling over feature is integral to the continual improvement process.


Genba (現場, genba?) (also romanized as Gemba) is a Japanese term meaning "the real place." Japanese detectives call the crime scene genba, and Japanese TV reporters may refer to themselves as reporting from genba. In business, genba refers to the place where value is created; in manufacturing the genba is the factory floor. It can be any "site" such as a construction site, sales floor or where the service provider interacts directly with the customer.[1]


Kaikaku means that an entire business is changed radically, normally always in the form of a project. Kaikaku is most often initiated by management, since the change as such and the result will significantly impact business. Kaikaku is about introducing new knowledge, new strategies, new approaches, new production techniques or new equipment. Kaikaku can be initiated by external factors, e.g. new technology or market conditions. Kaikaku can also be initiated when management see that ongoing Kaizen work is beginning to stagnate and no longer provides adequate results in relation to the effort. Kaikaku projects often result in improvements in the range of 30-50% and a new base level for continued Kaizen. Kaikaku may also be called System Kaizen.

Kaikaku projects can be of four different types: [1]

Locally innovative - Capital intensive

E.g. an installation of robot automation in a factory is not new to the industry in general, but may be new to the company. The decision is strategically grounded and could mean higher costs

Locally innovative - Operation close

E.g. the introduction of conventional methods Six Sigma or TPM may be new to the company. The direct cost is relatively small

Radically innovative - Capital intensive

E.g. the introduction a new and innovative production technology

Radically innovative - Operation close

E.g. the introduction of new and innovative production solutions that are new to the industry



Synergy blah.

[1] When I speak of Kaizen, I am referring to the meaning from the Japanese mindset, which sees the symbols as change (kai) towards perfection (Zen).  The same symbols are recognized by Chinese people as well, but they refer to it as Kaisan (as in Tucson), which generally suggests intending to come from bad to good.  The difference is a little like an orange and a lemon.  The Japanese respond to looking at the symbol with much more respect and appreciation. The picture above is from the tattoo of Kaizen on my arm and having lived in Asia for 2.5 years I consider myself to be the authority on this subject.  Japanese is basically 800 year old Chinese.


[3] This is purely business, and has nothing to do with the individual seeking their own personal Kaizen.

[4] The Discourse Summaries – S.N. Goenka – page 6

[5] Flexibility is insinuated

[6] Although focus & awareness is mental, to develop them requires time & effort.

[7] ISBN 0-9614986-0-9 The Keys to Excellence.  The Story of the Deming Philosophy.  Nancy R. Mann, Ph.D.