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Kai zen, Kaisen, Kaizan, Kai-what?

Hello again Kaizen masters! Sorry for the delay in posting but I’ve been extremely busy with new projects, health issues (threw out my back), travel, and family matters. About 3 weeks ago, I had to move our dog kennel with our two little Dachshunds inside after they had an unfortunate accident. I lifted the kennel without any trouble then as I set it down, I felt a pop, and down I went! Ordinarily, that would not keep me from writing, however, Doc put me on some happy pills and I spent most of the past 3 weeks in lala land.

Well – I’m finished with the excuses for now, I guess.

Since I wasn’t writing, I figured I would do some more in-depth research on the term Kaizen. I wasn’t looking for definitions so much as I was surprised to find a few different variations of how the term was spelled and searched for on the internet. I was looking to see why so many people can’t spell the word correctly. Strangely, I found that there are thousands of people around the world searching the internet for Kaizen not knowing how to actually spell it. I’m relatively certain that people are searching for the term ‘Kaizen’ but their lack of experience leads them to search other variations of the term. Unfortunately, some of these other variations can have a completely different meaning and could lead to confusion.

I have to admit, before I knew what Kaizen was, I doubt I would have been able to spell it either. I am an engineer by education yet don’t recall ever being exposed to Lean and Kaizen in college back in the early 90’s. I had to wait until I started working before I learned what Lean and Kaizen were all about. Fortunately, there are a number of degree programs out there today focused on Lean so I’m sure there is more opportunity to learn about continuous improvement than ever before. Even still, searches for the wrong terms number in the thousands each month…


This is the term you’re looking for. Kaizen is the philosophy of continuous improvement through small, incremental, and rapid change. You can search through my site for more information on Kaizen so I won’t get into its core definitions and execution in this post. I believe you’re reading this because you’re curious about the other kai… words so let’s move on to those.


If you were to search the term kaisen, you’ll find it most related to names. Carl Wilhelm Kaisen, born in 1887, was a German politician following WWII; Kaisen is also a popular name for sushi bars – Kaisen Sushi is the name of two sushi bars in California and Florida; Kaisen Infinity is a convention for fans of comics, anime, and science fiction; Oda Kaisen, born in 1785, was a Japanese artist; 1943 Midway Kaisen is an arcade game; and probably the most interesting is the increase in popularity of the term Kaisen for baby names.

According to, the name Kaisen is boy gender and the ranking of the name from both the BabyCenter database, and the U. S. Social Security Administration show the name has increased in popularity from a ranking of 8369 (3 babies total) in 2004, to 1638 (48 babies to date) in 2012. The popularity graph on their website shows a near exponential curve starting around 2010. I have not yet been able to determine the reason for its dramatic increase in popularity, so if you know why, please let me know.


Kaizan is an actual term in the Japanese language. When performing continuous improvement, you want to ensure it’s Kaizen, not Kaizan. “Kai” in Japanese means “to change” and “Zen” means “good”. Kaizen is generally referred to in the continuous improvement world as “change for the better”. According to Jon Miller at, Kaizan means in Japanese to “cook the books”. Obviously, when it comes time for continuous improvement initiatives, you will want to make sure you are performing Kaizen, and not Kaizan. Jon Miller’s article on the differences between the two can be found here. A very good article!

Maybe the misunderstandings surrounding the term Kaizen can be summed up a little easier. It is possible we are looking at a deficiency in our education system. Globally, there are a number of companies that follow the Lean path, lead by Lean example, follow through and perform to the highest standards. In Japan, this has become commonplace thanks to people like Shigeo Shingo and Taiichi Ohno. In the U.S., adapting to the Lean and Kaizen principles seem much harder to sustain. Reductions in manufacturing business, outsourcing, and constant executive turnover lead the way for unsustained transformations; failures of continuous improvement programs that are leading to non-transfer of Lean and Kaizen knowledge and culture from one generation to the next.

A good way to test how well your organization understands what Kaizen is all about, consider some light discussion on the topic with a few people inside your own company. Ask people if they’ve heard of it, know how it’s used, and where Kaizen fits in the Lean organization. If people respond with “what’s kaizan?”, “never heard of it!”, or “what are you talking about?”, maybe it’s time to kick up some more training. If people have trouble with the simple spelling of the term, it could be an indicator of a Kaizen-deficient future. Personally, I cannot imagine a future without Kaizen.

All best!

In Category: Continuous Improvement, Kaizen, Lean


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