What you didn't know about Kaizen but always wanted to

What you didn't know about Kaizen but always wanted to

If you've never heard of the term, it is time you learned what Kaizen is and what it can do for you. Kaizen is a form of productivity that makes you better, all the time, every time, forever. It is a self-improvement system.
Kaizen is a Japanese term for "improvement." It is a system of activities designed to help you continuously improve your business processes, functions and people over time.  Kaizen can help you ensure your company is continually improving through gradual change. 

Enough of the official terminology. Let's explore how Kaizen can be of use to you in the real world. 

Everyone has heard of Toyota. Their cars can be seen on Dubai's streets, the backroads of Amazon and highways of the United States.  They are one of the most reliable vehicles around and have been for decades.  Toyota can now be considered a byword for quality.  How did it get this way?

The amazing thing about the answer to this question is that it all started in the United States. 

A Small Historical Detour 

In 1960, W. Edwards Deming, an American engineer by trade, was awarded an Order of the Sacred Treasure, Second Class.  This prestigious award from the Japanese Emperor himself was given to Deming for contributions to Japan's industrial rebirth and its worldwide success.

What could a westerner have done to contribute to Japanese success worldwide?  W. Edwards Deming created a manufacturing movement that turned Japan into a powerhouse of manufacturing efficiency and quality. During his time in Japan, Deming taught hundreds of engineers, managers, and executives about statistical process control and quality concepts.  Companies like Sony, Toyota, and Honda built upon these concepts and began manufacturing superior quality products that cost much less to produce.

Both quality and reduction in cost came from the introduction of another American, Lowell Mellen.  Through his program "Improvement in Four Steps" or Kaizen eno Yon Dankai in Japanese, the concept of Kaizen was born and because such an integral part of Japanese economic success. 

What is Kaizen? 

Kaizen is an approach to improving a product or process that involves making small and gradual improvements to a process or a product.   For example, when you start writing a blog post, you write down your initial thoughts and then you spend time revising, adding, removing content to make your blog post better. This is Kaizen. 

Anytime you want to improve a process, you are doing Kaizen. Toyota Production System is the manufacturing process developed by Toyota. TPS, as it is known, is based on Kaizen.  From the assembly workers to cleaning staff to top management, employees are encouraged and, in some cases, mandated to come up with at least one improvement per year to their own work processes.   This results in millions of improvements to the production line, design processes, factory operations and business strategies every year. 

Toyota is known for its high-quality manufacturing, and its system has been copied by other car manufactures. Some successful, some not so much. 

The Kaizen Approach

How does Kaizen work exactly?  It is an approach that relies on a wholesale buy-in of the executive team and everyone else in the company. It is a way of living, a continual quest to improve oneself and what you are working on. 

While it was developed in the manufacturing space, its concepts are easily applied to other industries. 

To adopt a Kaizen approach in your team or organization, you should follow these principles: 

  • Encourage, empower and enable people who do the work to suggest improvements to their own processes and other activities
  • Always aim to make gradual changes. Kaizen is about improving continually rather than adopting radical changes. 
  • Make decisions about improvement based on hard evidence and encourage the use of quantitative analysis to assess processes and situations
  •  A group of people usually makes Kaizen improvements in a short period of time, usually known as a Kaizen Event. This activity is often focused on improving a single aspect of the process or product. 

One of Kaizen's most important aspects is the requirement that your people should be thinking about and doing Kaizen.  Bringing in consultants or outside firms to improve processes might be the right move, but process improvement should always be made in conjunction with the people who actually will perform the work. 

It is important to make this crystal clear.  More often than not, the people who know how best to improve something are the ones who are working on it.  Listen to them first. 

Tools of Kaizen

Kaizen as an improvement concept is pretty straightforward. We should all strive to improve how we do things continually.  But how can we actually do this well?  

The Japanese come to the rescue here.  The following tools have been created to ensure Kaizen is a success.  

  • Pareto Analysis
  • Value Stream Mapping
  • 5S
  • Target Progress Report

Probably the most recognizable of these tools is the Pareto Analysis. The other tools came straight from the manufacturing floor and might sound a bit foreign. But they are instrumental in many situations outside of the manufacturing world. 

Pareto Analysis

The 80/20 rule was observed and codified by Wilfredo Pareto in the early 1900s when he discovered that 80% of Italy's land was owned by 20% of the landowners.  He further observed that 20% of his garden produced 80% of peas and so on. If you are running a business, you can evaluate which percentage of clients brings in the most revenue and often, you will find the adherence to the 80/20 rule.

Now, 80/20 is just a name, and the actual percentages will vary depending on the industry, type of work, and other circumstances. You could have situations where 90% of the problems you process experiences are caused by one particular glitch in the system.

This is what Pareto's analysis is all about.  It helps you figure out the major cause of a particular defect, bottleneck or problem.

Let's say you want to figure out why your employees are constantly late for work.  You can start tracking late arrivals and asking them to provide a reason. Assuming there is no punishment and employees are truthful, you can end up with the following chart.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As you can see, the biggest cause of late arrivals is traffic, followed by child care-related issues.  So if you wanted to reduce late arrivals, the solutions could include moving the office closer to where most employees live, hiring employees who live closer to your business or allowing remote work.

With Pareto Analysis, it is easy to see the primary causes and how frequently they occur. This helps you focus your Kaizen (improvement efforts) in the area that will have the highest impact.

Value Stream Mapping

Value Stream Mapping is a depiction of how a process operates. To create a simple Value Stream Map, you need to list the steps in a process. To make it useful, you could get more data points, including people involved, inventory, how long each step in the process takes, etc.

When trying to improve a process, Value Steam Maps can be immensely useful in identifying steps that add little value or parts of the process that can be made more efficient and/or quicker.   

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) can be applied to as simple of a process as driving to work.  How can you improve this process?  Draw a map of how you get to work. 
Home To Work

If it takes 30 minutes to get to work from home and you think of it as one linear journey, then you can't really improve on it. 

The value of VSM comes after you break down the process into multiple parts. For example, you can break down your drive to work into these steps: House to Highway, Highway to Office. 
Home To Highway to Office VPS

This breakdown can now help you figure out if you can improve your time from home to work by looking for alternative routes to get to the highway or alternative routes to get to work after getting off the highway.

You can further improve the value map by adding distances to each journey.

Distance with Kilometers or Miles added

After adding distances to your map, you realize that the real bottleneck is the highway. It's only 5km of your journey, but it takes 20 minutes of driving time.  The reason for this could be traffic.  When you started taking the highway to work, it was only 5 min, and over the years, traffic increased. The whole journey has now become 4 times longer.

With this new map, you can figure out if there is another road you can take to reduce the total time.  It could be a longer road. You could go to the Mid Town and then to Town Square and then the office. The total road could be 15 km long, longer than your highway route, but the total time on that road is 21 minutes, which is 9 minutes shorter than your current route.
A different, longer distance but shorter time route

You can use the VSM to map out any process you have, for things in your house, your work processes, even your favourite sports plays.  The key is to ensure that the map itself includes all of the relevant information and the process is broken down into its most meaningful full parts.


The 5S tool is that is most often used to improve how you do your work than the actual work processes.  It is derived from Japanese terms all beginning with letter s:

  • Seiri - Sort
  • Seiton - Set in Order
  • Seiso - Shine
  • Seiketsu - Standardize
  • Shitsuke - Sustain

While it is typically applied to workplace environments, especially in manufacturing, factories, warehousing, etc., you can use it in just about any field, including to help you improve personal work habits. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

For example, if you need to improve your personal productivity and how you actually work every day, you can apply 5S techniques to that. 

  • Sort - Clean up your desk, put all the items into their rightful place, sort your documents into correct piles and folders, 
  • Set In Order - Move the tools that you use most often closer to you. If you are a carpenter, you can move the tools you use most often onto your tool belt and machines that you rarely used to the back of your working space. 
  • Shine - This is the easiest one to explain and the most difficult one to maintain. Shine is all about keeping everything clean and in order. Put your tools away after you are done,  store your documents, throw out garbage, and clean up after yourself. 
  • Standardize  - If you are trying to improve your productivity, you can standardize the time you do your daily planning, or when you check and respond to email or when you usually schedule your meetings.  For example, plan your day first thing in the morning, check emails and respond, then do you can focus on work tasks. Repeat every day.
  • Sustain - This tool is all about maintaining your new order of doing things. What triggers can you create to trigger desired behaviour and actions? What rewards can you set up to ensure you continue the behaviour? This is what sustaining is all about. 

These are the 5S tools.  As you saw, you can apply them to any process in the office, at home, or in the industry.  Its main goal is to help you organize how things are done, improve efficiency and effectiveness and sustaining the new way of doing your work.


SIPOC is a diagramming tool that is similar to Value Steam Mapping but includes a few additional concepts.  While VSM is all about understanding how the process works and where it can be improved, SIPOC considers the bigger picture.

A SIPOC diagram consists of the following elements:

  • Suppliers
  • Inputs
  • Processes
  • Outputs
  • Customers

SIPOC diagrams are used to understand the whole picture from a supplier to process to customers. For example, if you analyzed how a meal makes it onto your table, you could construct a SIPOC like the one you see below.  Emailing can be broken down into a SIPOC diagram just as easily as smelting of iron ore. 
Examples of SIPOC

Continuous improvement can only be achieved by understanding the big picture, and that is what SIPOC diagrams are for.  This Kaizen tool is one of the simplest and most powerful tools out there.

Target Progress Report

Probably the simplest of all tools, Target Progress Report is exactly what its name suggests.  It is a daily report on the progress of your improvement (Kaizen) efforts.  In this sense, it is similar to the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).  Every day you set a target for improvement, and at the end of the day, you provide an update on how successful the improvement was.  

In the military, they often use the term AAR (After Action Report) to review how a mission went, what went well, what didn't and what can be improved next time.  You can use the Target Progress Report as your simpler version of AAR. 

Create a document with the following three attributes:

  • Date
  • Target Improvement Objective
  • Score (A for Achieved, B for Almost,  F for failed) 

That's it. Fill out the card in the morning with the date and the objective and fill out the score at the end of your workday.  

Tracking improvement couldn't be easier than that. And that's what Kaizen is all about. 


Kaizen is an improvement mindset, and if you want to succeed at what you do, you have to constantly think about how to get better, learn and invent new ways of doing work, new processes.  Kaizen tools help with this.

The tools described in this article are a good start.  One of the best ways to improve your productivity is organizing your work and planning your tasks every day.

TeamHQ and its companion app Boardly can help you with that. If you are an independent contractor or manage many projects by yourself, Boardly could be of help to you.

If you run a team and require a battle-tested and proven system to plan and organize your work, try TeamHQ