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Par Nicole Juliet,
“I strive to be better every day.”
When I was a young employee at a geothermal company in the Philippines, this was one of the behaviors encouraged from every employee. At that time, the company was undergoing organizational transformation. Amidst all the changes, the company needed to cultivate a culture that would involve all its employees – from the CEO to workers – to support and sustain this transformation. One would often hear the words “efficiency”, “quick wins”, and “continuous improvement”. In a layman’s language, it meant “striving to be better every day”.
A few years later, when we were discussing about operational excellence in the Operations Management class under Prof. Eric David at EM Lyon, I learned that this process is actually called “Kaizen”. Kai means change and zen means “for the better”. Kaizen means to “change for the better”. These need not be radical changes, but tiny and quick improvements or “wins” that add up over time. These permeates through every aspect of the business, whether in people, processes, or products.
Kaizen is illustrated as a wheel being pushed upward an inclined slope towards progress. It aims to eliminate muda (waste) which can come from defects/rejects, unnecessary movement, inappropriate processing, waiting, transport, or overproduction. It signifies change with a view of going upward. As progress is made, it is important not to regress. A chock is put in place to prevent the wheel from going backwards. This chock is figurative for the work that is standardized that would maximize productivity.
Kaizen is illustrated as a wheel being pushed upward an inclined slope towards progress.
Kaizen was first coined and made well-known in the 1980’s by Masaaki Imai, author of ‘Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success’ and esteemed organizational theorist and management consultant. It consists of five key principles:
- Know your customer – Identify the interest of customers to create value and enhance their experience;
- Let it flow – Everyone in the organization should aim to create value and eliminate waste;
- Go to gemba – “Gemba” means the field or the workplace. Go where the action happens – this is where value is created;
- Empower people – In a kaizen system, people take ownership of their work and everyone is encouraged to recommend improvement. Coordinate teams to aim for the same objectives and equip them with a system and tools to achieve them;
- Be transparent – Performance and improvements should be tangible and visible
Beyond being a business approach, Kaizen is a philosophy and a way of life that can be applied in multiple fields, such as in learning, entrepreneurship, associative life, or personal life.
This practice contributed to huge improvements in industries in Japan as it started its rebuilding its economy after World War II in the 1940s. It is mainly followed by manufacturing companies, most notably by Toyota which has ingrained it in its Toyota Production System and core values. As its slogan goes, “Always a Better Way”. Operationally, As a result of this practice, Toyota improved its productivity and safety performance, enhanced the quality of its products, reduced the inefficiencies in its processes, and remained profitable.
Beyond being a business approach, Kaizen is a philosophy and a way of life that can be applied in multiple fields, such as in learning, entrepreneurship, associative life, or personal life. Learning a new skill or topic can be overwhelming. But following the kaizen philosophy encourages practice and improvement by starting as small as reading a page, listening to a single episode of a podcast, or solving a question from a problem set. Likewise, an entrepreneurial journey could be long and uncertain. Observing kaizen, in the form of small, frequent iterations on early products and services instead of the latter stages of product development where there has been huge investment of time and resources, could allow the enterprise to better satisfy customer demands and requirements sooner and with less sunk cost.
Finally, as early makers, we dream big and aim to achieve remarkable things. However, reaching them may not happen all at once and may involve successes and failures along the way. Learning from kaizen, the small and quick wins allows one to celebrate his or her successes, while continuous improvement allows grace in case of failure. As they say, big things come from humble beginnings– it may come in one task, one day at a time.