Leveraging the Benefits of Kaizen

By Tom McBride, Partners for Creative Solutions, Inc.

The Japanese word kaizen, meaning “continuous improvement”, has been widely recognized for years.  Often thought of as an ongoing series of small improvements, kaizen can also produce large and rapid gains critical to an organization’s goals through team projects called kaizen events. 

Kaizen engages workers in simplifying work, reducing stress and fatigue, and improving quality and efficiency.  Dramatic results have been documented over the years, but few organizations have achieved the full potential of kaizen.  So, what is the secret to getting much more from our investments in kaizen?  A large part of the answer lies in Dr. Deming’s Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle (PDCA), a form of the scientific method.  (Note:  Deming gave credit to his mentor, Dr. Walter Shewhart)

To illustrate, let’s look at an example of a successful kaizen application involving a growing medical office that was receiving a large number of complaints about their appointments process.  The leadership team realized that lasting success would require full use of PDCA to achieve the following elements.  

  1. Kaizen event - A project team that included work group members was launched to quickly develop and implement solutions.  Applying the complete PDCA cycle the team put radical improvements in place and verified the new process within days.  As a result, complaints fell substantially. 
  2. Sustain the gains - Results from the kaizen event were sustained through documentation, training, measurements (complaints, errors, time to get appointments), leadership, and ownership by the work group.  This element continued PDCA with emphasis on check and act.
  3. Continue to improve - Kaizen became a daily part of the way work was done, and the work group made improvement after improvement by perpetuating the PDCA cycle.

In this example all three elements were effectively executed to fully utilize PDCA and achieve a significant gain.  However, most organizations do not follow through as well. In fact, William Lareau states in his book, “Office Kaizen”, that only 1 in 20 succeed at element 2 and 1 in 1000 achieve element 3 without special kaizen events or management intervention. 

Significantly greater returns are achieved when kaizen fully utilizes PDCA as our example organization demonstrated by its thoroughness with elements 2 and 3. Furthermore, when a sound kaizen process and culture are in place as a foundation, it is likely that major technology and strategy changes will also yield much better results.