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What is Kaizen?

The word Kaizen is a term derived from the meaning of two Japanese words; Kai, meaning “change”, and Zen, meaning “Good”. Combined, the word Kaizen generally means “Change for the better”.

Kaizen is used most often to describe a process of quick change or improvement in an organization through utilization of an event or blitz. Kaizen then becomes a force for and influences the “change for the better”. The leader, or facilitator of a Kaizen event should be a major proponent of Lean and Continuous Improvement, and should be considered very skillful in the arts of influence and communication. This person will be responsible for driving the event, and all related Lean objectives through the course of the Kaizen process.

Kaizen is basically no more than a tool to help an organization break down the overall value it presents to customers into smaller more manageable individual pieces, and then based on the value stream, rapidly re-built it into waste-free processes. Kaizen is considered a part of Lean that focuses

primarily on improving productivity and reducing cycle times. Historically, its focus has been limited to factory floors but in more recent years, has made its way into hospitals, classrooms, and sales & marketing, and across numerous different industries.

Critical elements of a Kaizen event:

  • Identifying if Kaizen is the right tool
  • Preparation
  • Tool selection
  • Team selection
  • Value-Stream Map (VSM)
  • Constant vigilant progress
  • Valid metrics
  • Follow-up

Is Kaizen the right tool?

To ensure a Kaizen is the correct tool to use for an existing problem, some basic questions need to be asked first. Sometimes a problem can be simple enough to solve with one or two people inside just a few hours. Other problems may actually be symptoms of much deeper systematic issues that could take months to resolve. Kaizen is meant for problems somewhere in between. Ask these questions first to ensure a Kaizen event is the right tool:


  • Is the problem related to cycle time or productivity?
  • With a small team of people, can the problem be fixed within a few days?
  • Do you have bottlenecks in a process that hold things up?
  • Is the problem obvious and well recognized by many people?
  • Is the process repeatable with easily understood performance measures?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are a Kaizen will help.


A Kaizen event will likely fail without excellent preparation. Once the problem has been identified, preparation should consist of the following things:

  • Complete a VSM
  • Develop a Problem Statement with background information
  • Determine the objective of the event
  • Determine process times
  • Identify team members and train them on Lean and Kaizen
  • Prepare a box of supplies
  • Schedule a meeting room, snacks, and lunches for each day
  • Hold a meeting with all stakeholders to gain support
  • Identify and arrange resources such as maintenance or other support
  • Create a broad agenda for the event

Tool Selection

Although there are numerous different tools in the Lean toolbox, the five most common used in Kaizen events are listed here. These tools alone can help solve many of the issues that plaque business today.

  • 5 Why’s:  This is a process that involves asking “why” 5 times to a problem to get to the root cause.
  • Affinity Diagram: This diagram is the result of the team’s initial brainstorming event and helps to narrow down the list of sub-problems into primary focus items for the event.
  • Mistake-Proofing (Poka-Yoke):  This method is used to help prevent excess inventory, or when the process results in a low First Pass Yield (FPY).
  • Pareto Diagram: This a bar chart based on the Pareto Principle that states that 80% of problems are created by only 20% of the potential root causes. This tool can help identify the most significant problems in a process.
  • Value Stream Map: See below.

Team Selection

When selecting a team for the Kaizen event, members should come from the ranks of those that use the process being improved. For example, if the problem occurs on a production line and within a particular work cell, members from that work cell should be a part of the Kaizen event, along with those that have secondary involvement with that line, such as representatives from Purchasing, Engineering, and Scheduling. Also important is to have at least one outsider as a member of the team. This person could be familiar with the process but not directly involved such as someone from Product Management, to provide an objective view.

Value-Stream Map

The Value Stream Map (VSM) is a critical tool used to show the product, material, and information flow in a process. During a Kaizen event, it is typical to develop a current state map to see the process as it runs at present, and then a future state map to show the way the process should run. The idea to develop a future state map and anticipate how the

changes will affect the process, people, material, and information is what makes it critical to the success of the event. The VSM is designed to show how improvements in lead time, inventory or delivery can impact the process.

 Constant Vigilant Progress

One of the responsibilities of the Kaizen leader or facilitator is to keep everyone focused on the objective. In some events I have attended as both a leader and a member, I have experienced a situation where everything seems to get a little out of hand, people lose focus, and everything seems to come to a stand-still. The leader must stay very aware of what is going on around him or her; keeping a vigil on what everyone is doing, and keeping everyone focused on the ultimate goal. The only way to meet this goal is through constant vigilant progress. Things must keep moving forward. If you come to a point at which there seems to be no resolution, or general consensus on the proper course of action, the leader must pick a route, and move on. Remember, in a Kaizen, even a minor improvement to a process means the process is better than it used to be. Through rapid change, the process will certainly improve, and progress will continue.

Valid Metrics

No process can be measured for its success or failure without the use of valid metrics. It is very important that near the end of the Kaizen event, metrics such as First Pass Yield (FPY), Takt Time, Standard Work, Lead Time, etc. should be measured on an ongoing and long-term basis to ensure the changes made during the event are sustained.


A part of the Kaizen process is to ensure that follow-up of action items is taking place. A plan should be developed that lists due dates in one or two week intervals of items that could not be addressed during the event. These are items left over from the brainstorming session that either took too much time to complete, required capital funding, or were left over for any other reason. If they were identified as a problem that needs addressing, they must be addressed within the following few weeks after the event.

What a Kaizen can do

  • Feeds on the enthusiasm and emotion of everyone involved and promotes thorough investigation and resolution
  • Helps keep costs down by using existing resources
  • Allows process users a chance to see the inner workings
  • Helps create ownership and empowerment
  • Improves job satisfaction

Kaizen events have the power to change the direction and focus of any organization. As a part of a Lean transformation, they are used to improve the lives and working conditions for employees through incremental changes over time, effectively changing culture and attitudes in the process.

To learn more about kaizen in a healthcare environment, see this video: