The KAIZEN™ Methodology, a Must for the Best Companies in the World


We spoke to Alberto Bastos, Senior Partner & Managing Director of the Kaizen Institute Western Europe and author of the book “Strat to Action”, who explained to us what the KAIZEN™ methodology is, who it is for, its benefits, its evolution, and next strategic steps.

1. What is KAIZEN™?

KAIZEN™ is a Japanese word meaning ‘change for the better’ or ‘continuous improvement.’ At Kaizen Institute, we understand that this continuous improvement concept extends to the way we structure our organizations. Hence, it is possible to improve all areas, involving everyone every day.

It is necessary to develop three types of skills to implement an organizational model that involves everyone and allows for improvement every day in all areas:

1. How to improve what we do every day.

2. How to improve cross-organizational, cross-team processes.

3. How to define and implement breakthrough changes that lead the organization to evolve in the way it acts and, consequently, in the results it achieves.

After World War II in Japan, companies such as Toyota and Nippondenso, after studying the best practices of the Western world, undertook a systematic improvement of their processes which they called KAIZEN™. As a result, their products were of the highest quality in the 1970s and 1980s and were recognized throughout the Western world.

In 1985, when Mr. Masaaki Imai published his book ‘KAIZEN™: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success,’ the Western world was eager to learn the secret behind such success. It became a best-seller – sought by all CEOs.

In this book, he states that KAIZEN™ is more than a set of improvement tools (methodologies); it is a holistic concept. KAIZEN™ means continuous and applies to our personal, social, and work life.

KAIZEN™ starts with small incremental improvements, moving from more significant improvements through adopting new paradigms that drive quality, cost, and customer service improvements, all the way to implementing breakthrough ideas that are truly responsible for substantial business growth.

The KAIZEN™ methodology, even today, continues to be an essential practice in the world’s benchmark companies.

2. What are your roles within the companies you work with?

With an international team of over 700 people and offices in more than 40 countries, we deliver value and results through our consulting and training services. Our approach is practical, pragmatic, and collaborative, working alongside our customers’ teams at the Gemba in their workplace, whether in an industrial or office environment. We are where the action takes place and can see the opportunities first-hand. From day one, the contribution of the teams is vital for the success of any transformation, and of course, the key lies in learning by doing and developing KAIZEN™ skills with our customers.

KAIZEN™ can be used in any organization, regardless of the sector. However, the KAIZEN™ principles must be understood and practiced, starting with senior management and later deployed to the other levels of the organization.

People often think that the service sector, or functions such as marketing & sales or R&D, are more challenging as the processes are less visible. But, once you understand the KAIZEN™ principles and acquire the experience of implementing the right improvement tools, you can improve any situation and achieve breakthrough results. Any sector, and any function within any organization, can achieve the full benefits when they embrace and implement KAIZEN™ paradigms across their enterprise.

3. You work with large companies from different sectors, from Groupe PSA to Hotel Chocolat and Siemens. What sets you apart from your competitors?

The traditional consultant tends to be a ‘teacher,’ i.e., they explain the methodology and how it should be followed and then proposes homework and exercises to reinforce the knowledge acquired.

We are not traditional consultants; we are ‘implementers.’ We are not just suggesting what to do. We stand by the team when the changes are being implemented, facing any problems that may arise. We are committed to the results and do whatever it takes to achieve them.

This modus operandi used by Kaizen Institute was born because, after the success of Mr. Imai’s book, many companies in the Western world required his services to implement KAIZEN™.

Mr. Imai would bring in retired engineers from Toyota to carry out the projects. The implementation took place during an intensive week starting on Monday mornings when the CEO set the challenge, for example, the need to improve productivity by 20%.

Faced with the challenge, the KAIZEN™ consultant began to provide instructions to move machines from one place to another, change workstations, define new standards and processes, and require a multidisciplinary team at their disposal. At the end of the week, all the results generated were presented – the consultancy process consisted in ‘doing’, then ‘understanding’ why it was done.

Nowadays, it is not done exactly this way, but first, we explain why we must change and what the new paradigm to be implemented is. Still, we continue to use intensive KAIZEN™ events for the implementation with the participation of the entire internal team. The results achieved are the sum of the work and ideas of everyone in the team and driven and facilitated by the consultant.

4. How has Coronavirus affected you?

As an implementation consultancy, COVID-19 made it challenging to carry out our business as usual. Like our customers, we had to adapt quickly to a virtual delivery format. We developed and refined our methodologies so that we could conduct improvement workshops with multidisciplinary teams digitally.

Indeed, in many cases, we showed what KAIZEN™ is all about. For some customers who were already very advanced in the digital field, improving their processes even more and achieving quick results was possible. Even for customers who traditionally made improvements in their physical processes, the crisis accelerated the focus on continuous improvement in their digital processes.

We often make the mistake of thinking that a digitized process does not require improvement; however, when a process is automated, if we do not simplify it and remove the existing waste, we will be automating what does not add value.

A crisis often forces us to mitigate and manage risks quickly, and with COVID-19, the survival instinct of many organizations kicked in. This pandemic has surely highlighted the need to ponder on our practices within a company: how efficient, effective, and flexible are we? Companies that have implemented a KAIZEN™ business system were more prepared for such a crisis.

This crisis is nothing new, considering what we have seen in the past. Toyota Motor Corporation showed this to the world during the 70s oil crisis and the subsequent recessions.

Most companies can generate profits during a boom stage, but very few can sustain them in a recession. The simultaneous flexibility and stability of the KAIZEN™ approach help companies survive during the most challenging stages of economic cycles and thrive during troubled periods.

Adapting to the ‘new normal’ requires companies to innovate with products, processes, and how they lead their people. However, this must be driven by reconnecting with the new needs of customers. Continuously communicating with customers to better understand their new needs is the starting point for implementing KAIZEN™ in this new situation.

A crisis can be an important opportunity to create the ‘new normal’ that can dictate the company’s future. Successful companies will have the stability, flexibility, and ability to go through a crisis such as COVID-19 and come out with strength and resilience, not only surviving but excelling during these difficult times.

5. What will be the new challenges for Kaizen Institute?

Over the last decades, Kaizen Institute has positioned itself as a global benchmark in Operational Excellence; our present and future challenge is to follow this same path in the Growth areas. This means applying KAIZEN™ to the innovation and product development processes, the marketing and sales processes, all the way to the improvement of the strategy formulation and execution process.

With the publication of the book ‘Strat to Action,’ before the pandemic, we started to feel the momentum in this area, positioning ourselves on more strategic levels. The reality is that we are familiar with the subject, and we carry a lot of experience. Still, the market associates us so substantially with industry and operational excellence that it is a challenge for us to have similar recognition in growth excellence.

We know that to achieve the results we are aiming for, it is necessary to start with a clear strategy visible to senior management, and this is what we have been doing.

Trusting in the success of this methodology, we applied it internally throughout Kaizen, getting people committed and involved with these goals through the Strat to Action strategic deployment process and making the action plan complete at the point of impact.

6. What do companies need to invest in to adapt to the needs of the near future?

We are experiencing the biggest technology boom in history. The technological and digital offer is so vast that companies are having difficulty deciding how to best use the available tools.

Improving the business model continues to be key, for which it is essential to support and take advantage of technological advances. Still, it is a mistake to think that investment in technology and/or digitization alone will lead to a company’s success.

Technology and digitization support the efficient processes of a business model, but we cannot make the mistake of doing it the other way around. First, we must improve our processes and create a profitable business, and only then use technology and digital tools to support these processes to be even more efficient and effective.

On the other hand, society’s concern for sustainability should not remain just an intention or an opinion. The EU has made a commitment through the European Green Pact to become climate neutral by 2050. This goal will only be achieved if all economic actors participate, commit, and act.

The corporate mesh plays a key role in achieving this target. Companies must define and implement KAIZEN™ projects aiming at reducing water consumption, incorporating recycled materials, improving energy efficiency in processes, using clean energies, and reducing energy and material waste.

For this to be possible, it is necessary to ensure that we have a structured process with proven methodologies that allow the involvement of everyone to achieve results, which in this case, will contribute to everyday well-being.

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