Lean KAIZEN™: an Approach to Process Improvement


Lean KAIZEN™ is a proven approach to creating continuous process improvement every day, in all areas of an organisation, and with the involvement of everyone – leadership, management, and employees – based on the identification and elimination of muda (Japanese term for waste). Today, this approach to lean process improvement is recognised around the world as a relevant pillar of competitive strategy in organisations, increasing team productivity and process efficiency.

Lean KAIZEN™ aims to overcome managerial and operational paradigms – a model, rule, or habit that influences the way a given situation or problem is dealt with within an organisation. Common paradigms in organisations might include the fact that measures are set with the expectation that results will appear naturally; quality is the only responsibility of the quality team, while efficiency is of the industrial engineering team; organisational culture is not relevant – among others. It is common in organisations that employees only consider one way of performing their work – the way they are used to – and do not think about whether it is the most efficient way. However, practices should be questioned, and, if problems are identified, paradigms must be changed, and so must behaviours. The implementation of a Lean KAIZEN™ strategy will sustain this paradigm change and allow everyone in the organisation to question a problem and be able to solve it.

What is a Lean KAIZEN™ Strategy?

A Lean KAIZEN™ Strategy seeks to involve employees from all areas and levels in the development of the organisation, working together to address problems, investigate causes, find solutions, and implement corrective actions.

Moreover, teams must be involved in the implementation of the changes, working in a systematic way to identify problems, investigate causes, find solutions, and implement corrective actions.

It starts with the identification of the problems inside the organisation that create muda, followed by the set of improvement goals. Having the improvement plan defined, the Lean KAIZEN™ Strategy can be implemented.

The first step is to change the Gemba, improving work areas and processes. This includes the design of new layouts and process flows to minimise material handling costs, Lead Times, and space requirements.

However, there will be resistance to change as people are used to a certain way of working, and it is key to get everyone involved in the process of change. To do so, processes and activities must be completely visible to everyone – steps, sequence, platform, material and information flow, Lead Time and execution time. This way, employees gain a wider perspective of problems and opportunities, making them recognise the need for improvement and feel involved in the process.

With the lean process improvements in place, the second stage is to shift the behaviour and mindset of the teams. This involves improved communication and sharing of knowledge and experience with the creation of daily team meetings to keep track of performance, organise tasks, set goals, and discuss improvement opportunities. Also, a set of lean training should be adopted to reinforce the promotion of the best practices. This way, a continuous improvement culture is created and needs to be constantly maintained.

The implementation of a Lean KAIZEN™ Strategy will result in excellent achievements at distinct levels:

  • Growth: sales growth through disruptive ideation, new product and service development and increased effectiveness of investment in innovation.
  • Quality, Cost and Delivery: operations improvement in terms of quality, cost reduction by increasing resource and process efficiency and service level improvement through business process optimisation.
  • Motivation: creation of teamwork spirit, increase in employee involvement, motivation, and sense of pride in the organisation by establishing a culture of continuous improvement.

Which lean process improvement methodology is best for your business?

A Lean KAIZEN™ strategy will lead to global improvements that can be implemented in all sectors and areas, whether in production, in the office or in logistics.

To identify the big improvement opportunities in your company, you should run a diagnosis phase where all the opportunities will be identified and measured. It will be clear if you must improve your operations flow, quality, team structure or warehouse operations, overall, you will get a clear idea of what are the priorities, and which should be improvement tools to address the opportunities. Having this clear, we should define an implementation roadmap that will cover all the priorities and set the direction.

How KAIZEN™ reduces waste

muda is an essential term in what concerns KAIZEN™ as it regards decreasing waste by eliminating overproduction and reducing unnecessary activities. With the reduction of waste, productivity increases, costs reduce and consequently there is a higher added value to the company. How can a KAIZEN™ approach reduce waste?

First, an organisation should evaluate what activities are considered valuable to the final customer. Every activity for which the client is not willing to pay is considered muda and should thus be eliminated. Thereafter, the value-added activities should be reinforced to improve the quality of the finished product and consequently increase customer satisfaction. This is the main goal of a Lean KAIZEN™ Strategy, namely, to provide higher value to the customer through an optimised value creation process with zero waste and high customer service, and that is why muda is so important for KAIZEN™.

Thus, what is considered muda depends on the business’ characteristics and needs. However, a model was developed that defines the seven muda, and it can be applied not only in production, but can be adapted to various business areas – administration, logistics, maintenance, etc.

The seven listed muda are the following:

1. Excess Production: this refers to producing more than required and before it is needed. It is the biggest waste as it is responsible for all the remaining types of waste. By increasing the stock, the transport of materials increases, as well as the amount of material waiting, the movement of people, the people waiting, the overprocessing and the defects and errors. So, it is extremely important to produce only the necessary quantity and within the appropriate timing.

2. People Waiting: it is considered muda when people are waiting for machines to stop or to set-up, for materials to arise, for quality inspections to happen, etc.

3. Material (or Information) Waiting: with too much stock, inefficiencies such as defects, deterioration, machine set-up uptime and downtime, space occupation, and invested capital, increase. So, material or information waiting is regarded as a significant waste.

4. Movement of People: when people are moving too much, it means either that the work sequence or layout is incorrect, or that they are searching for tools or materials, and, consequently, wasting their time.

5. Material Transportation: distances should always be the shortest possible, so when the material transportation is time-consuming and is not optimising the capacity, it is considered waste. Exceptionally, when the transportation is towards the customer, it is adding value. There are alternative movement methods in which an organisation can invest to minimise material transportation done by people.

6. Overprocessing: this type of waste refers to excessive time spent with processes that are not the main activity such as repair, cleaning, inspection, deburring, heating, cooling, or drying.

7. Errors and Defects: defects cause rework and cost valuable time. Four different types of defects are considered Muda: disqualification, second quality (products that have small defects and are sold at a lower price), rejection, and junk.

How do I create a culture of continuous improvement?

One of the most frequent paradigms in organisations is the fact that people believe that organisational culture is not important as companies need to focus on producing, and not on understanding the root cause of the problems or improving the processes. This is a paradigm that needs to be broken before starting the Lean KAIZEN™ implementation since it is a crucial pillar of the approach.

The first step in creating a continuous improvement culture is to understand the structure of the organisation and to ensure that teams are set up in a way that allows for agile collaboration and efficient management.

With the correct team structure in place, appropriate daily management frameworks may be incorporated into everyday routines with the aim of decentralising operations and fostering decision-making autonomy. Ultimately, the adoption of the new team management processes should be audited to incorporate new improvements and recognise successful behaviours. In this sense, leaders need to give feedback to employees, monitor performance and take corrective actions when needed.

Additionally, it is important to provide employees with incentives, as these affect behaviour and performance positively, leading to cultural change.

In conclusion, to develop a continuous improvement culture, organisations must move from unstructured firefighting to an improvement-driven approach. This requires a behavioural change in all levels of the organisation and the implementation of a daily KAIZEN™ programme, that should start with data, making the problems visual and following structured problem-solving technics. With the support of leaders and pre-defined standards, everybody should be able to visualise problems and fix them autonomously doing better every day.

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