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What is Kaizen?


Kaizen is developed to create lean manufacturing (Image: Wix/Possessed Photography)

This article explains the meaning of kaizen, the 5S Kaizen method, the PDCA cycle, 8 types of waste, the benefits of kaizen, and the example of kaizen.

The Meaning of Kaizen

Kaizen (改善、 かいぜん) means improvement in Japanese. Kaizen is an approach that encourages everyone in an organization to keep improving by making little positive changes every day.

改 means change. 善 means good or better. So, it literally means change for the better. It also refers to continuous improvement. The purpose of kaizen is to eliminate waste (Muda, 無駄), unevenness (Mura, 斑), and overburden (Muri, 無理).

Kaizen is a philosophy used in Japanese workplaces and offices since the 1950s. The Kaizen method first emerged in the manufacturing industry post World War 2. Nowadays, kaizen is applied in many other industries.

This concept is not just maintained in Japan for decades but also spread out all over the world. Masaaki Imai is one of the influencers behind Kaizen's popularity. He founded Kaizen Institute Consulting Group in 1986 and introduced kaizen to western companies.

The prominent characteristic of kaizen is making minor improvements that don't need huge capital. The goals are to improve tasks that took 1 minute to 30 seconds, minimize accidents by securing tools placement, write labels on tools, so everyone knows what it is, and reduce waste.

These improvement ideas come from all employees, from CEO to manager to staff. They find tricks and hacks to make their work more efficient. The little continuous changes increased their productivity much better and easier than one radical change.

5S Kaizen Method

5S refers to 5 actions to apply kaizen in the workplace, which is part of the Kaizen implementation method. These are the elements of 5S:

  • Seiri (整理) or Sort

Seiri means organizing all items in the workplace.

The goals are to have things in the determined places so people don't waste time looking for them, simplify the inventory process, get rid of unnecessary items to have more space, and avoid accidents because of things that are put where they shouldn't be.

  • Seiton (整頓) or Set in order

Seiton is arranging items or tools in the optimal places for their function.

The goals are to create orderliness and smooth workflow.

  • Seiso (清掃) or Shine

Seiso is keeping the workplace clean and checking tools and machines in routine.

The goals are to create a comfortable, safe, and pleasing workplace, prevent errors and defective products, and ensure safety.

  • Seiketsu (清潔) or Standardize

Seiketsu establishes standardized procedures for sorting, setting items in order, cleaning, and inspecting the workplace. The goal is to make efficient ways, so everyone can learn and know how to implement the 3Ss mentioned.

  • Shitsuke (躾) or Sustain

Shitsuke means developing self-discipline in the employees. In other words, Shitsuke's goal is for the employees to make a habit of Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, and Seiketsu.

PDCA Cycle

Another kaizen approach is the PDCA cycle, also known as the Shewhart or Deming cycle. PDCA is to plan, do, check, and act.

Plan: When you know what you want to improve or solve, create a plan. Specify the goals, the purpose, and the steps you'll take.

Do: Execute your plan accordingly. Start on a small scale at first.

Check: After making a change, check if its result matches your goals.

Act: If the results aren't what you expected, you have to start over from the planning step. If the results meet your purpose, you can apply the improvement on a larger scale, and the cycle repeats.

8 Types of Muda

Muda (無駄) is a Japanese term for waste. One of the kaizen's objections is to create more effective processes, so eliminating waste is necessary. Taiichi Ohno developed the concept of Muda as part of the Toyota Production System (TPS). It originally contained 7 types of waste, but later some companies identified 8 types of waste.


Too much product can lead to waste of energy, storage, financial cost, and the product itself. In some cases, the company can't sell all the products. The sales then need to create discounts or even throw them away to empty the storage space.


Waiting is an unproductive activity, whether for a short or long period. The workflow or employee placement should be changed to prevent workers do nothing.


Moving the materials and products around during the manufacturing process costs time, energy, and fees. It can also increase damage potential during the moving process.


Both employees and the products should not move around uselessly. Employees shouldn't waste their movement searching for a tool or going back and forth. It's crucial to place things in a logical order and within reach.


Overprocessing means putting more work into the products beyond necessary or what the customer asks. Overprocessing includes adding more components or features, adding extra steps in the workflow, repeatedly inputting data entry, and using tools with higher quality than needed.


Waste of inventory is keeping excess products, materials, and data. The company should not over-purchase the materials only to keep them in stock. The materials can be damaged before being used in production.


Defective products waste all of the production processes. Some products can be scrapped or reworked, but both options put additional costs on the company.

Unused skills and knowledge

The eighth waste is human potential and resources. It is a waste if a company doesn't train their employees properly, give them space to improve, and listen to their feedback.

The Benefits of Kaizen

  • Clean, safe, and comfortable workplace for the employees

  • More productive and happier employees

  • High-quality products with lower cost and more effective workflow

  • Better customer satisfaction

  • Constant evaluations and improvements

The Examples of Kaizen

You can apply kaizen in every improvement opportunity. Here are some simple things you can do to improve your workplace:

  • Keeping things in their designated place and immediately return tools to the equipment storage so everyone can easily find it

  • Make equipment storage in close proximity

  • Clean your work area daily

  • Inspect the workplace and equipment while cleaning

  • Organize training sessions for new recruits so they can adapt and learn quickly

Kaizen culture has been maintained for decades because of its effect on production effectiveness. It proved that employee inclusion and a problem-solving mindset bring much better results to the company. It's not massive innovation but small constant gradual changes that you can start by tomorrow.





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