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The Kaizen Mindset: 5 points to develop it

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Kaizen isn't just a methodology - it's a whole new mindset which, if not fully understood, may lead to a failure to implement kaizen. Here are the five most important points to live if you want to develop the Kaizen Mindset.

By Karn G. Bulsuk


Learn more about Kaizen and the Toyota Way
In order to succeed in kaizen, it’s easy to focus on other people and factors. What many people may ignore is the fact that you yourself need to embrace the mindset required for kaizen to succeed. Here are several of the most important things to keep in mind if you’re implementing anything from personal kaizen projects, to organizational change.

1) Kaizen is about change

If you’re saying that you want change in one hand, but deep down don’t think change is necessary, you might as well stop kaizen right now.

Translated from the Japanese, kaizen means “continuous improvement”, and any type of improvement involves change. If you have no real intention in allowing any change, no matter how small, kaizen implementation will fail.

Kaizen has been often implemented as a fad rather than a true long-term strategy, and one of the reasons for that is because the people and the leaders themselves do not truly understand that the core principal of kaizen is continual and incremental change.

2) Kaizen is a long term commitment

If you think any kaizen project will be completed in the next six months, then you’re sorely mistaken. Kaizen is a continual process which never ends. Kaizen is the pursuit of perfection. Naturally, perfection is impossible to achieve: you can always make things better, so kaizen too is something that will keep going.

3) Kaizen comes from the bottom

If you feel that kaizen will mean business as usual – a suggestion box in which then top management will consider the merits of each suggestion – then you’re in for disappointment.

As management, you need to realize that the most successful implementations of kaizen are when suggestions and plans for improvements have come from the bottom up, not top down. Only those who are actually in the field doing the work truly understand what works and what does not – those managing simply do not have the exposure to gain this intimate knowledge, and initiatives implemented by them may not lead to true improvements.

In Toyota for example, during car assembly they have a cart filled with every tool they need for that particular job arranged logically: nothing more, nothing less. The idea was so to decrease movement and time required by workers to find and obtain tools, hence increasing efficiency. The idea also originated from factory workers on the floor, who knew what their pain points were, and what needed to be changed to make work more comfortable and more efficient.

4) Kaizen is about freedom to do it

Kaizen isn’t about getting approval to make improvements – it’s about actually doing it. Your people need to be given the freedom to experiment and take actions in which they feel would make things better. Similar to the 20% time and 15% time that 3M and Google provide respectively for their people to freely tinker, experiment and produce improvements and innovations, kaizen also needs to be left open for interpretation and experimentation. Improvements always happen gradually, and to gain real tangible results, a firm needs to encourage it through freedom.

The biggest mistake that management could make is to formalize kaizen to such an extent that getting anything done is a hassle and bureaucratic.

5) Kaizen is about making mistakes

In the Western management system, unfortunately mistakes are often treated as negative experiences, used to punish and discipline. In the Japanese system and in kaizen, mistakes are seen in a positive light, something to learn from. In a Western firm, a Big Mistake would lead to a chat with The Boss, and perhaps disciplinary action or dismissal. In Toyota, a mistake would entail conducting a full, detailed 5-why analysis to determine the root causes of the failures, and identification of countermeasures to prevent it from reoccurring. In Toyota, the guy would keep his job. In America, the guy would lose it.

The Japanese see this as an opportunity to improve, and if you fire or intimidate the guy who knows best where they messed up, what hope would they have to prevent reoccurrence?

Kaizen is about trial and error. Nothing is perfect, and sometimes many refinements need to be made before an improvement is primed for go-live and transfer to other teams and departments. A good leader will encourage such trial and error, or risk developing a team or company with a risk-adverse mindset: nothing improves because unless the improvement were perfect, it would be punished.

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Living these five points will help you to develop the kaizen mindset which allows a true kaizen implementation to work and bear fruit.

Learn more about Kaizen and the Toyota Way


Photo credit: Kalyan Chakravarthy

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