What is the Kaizen Principle?

It’s impossible to talk about any form of lean manufacturing or methodologies to improve efficiency without talking about Kaizen. This concept originated from Japan but has gone on to be implemented in major companies around the world including Ford, FedEx, and McDonalds.

Like many initiatives that are introduced to manufacturing, Kaizen’s main goal is improving efficiency. However, its unique approach was very different from what many Western companies were accustomed to at the time of its introduction.

In this article, we’ll explain what the Kaizen Principle is all about, its elements, principles, and types. We’ll also highlight how Kaizen can be implemented, its benefits, and some useful tools for successful implementation.

What is the Kaizen Principle?

The Kaizen principle is a business philosophy that advocates for continuous improvement in the workplace. The word Kaizen is formed by joining the Japanese words ‘Kai’ for change and ‘Zen’ for good. It can also be translated as “Change for the better”.

Origins of Kaizen

The concept of Kaizen was introduced to the Western World in 1986 with the publication “Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success”. By then, Kaizen had already proven to be successful in major Japanese companies including Toyota, Sony, Canon, and Honda.

The concept was developed by Toyota and was inspired by ideas taught by American consultants such as W. Edwards Deming.

Just-In-Time Manufacturing

Kaizen was instrumental in achieving Toyota’s Just in Time manufacturing concept which ensured the company kept as little inventory as necessary. This enabled them to cut down on the costs associated with larger inventories. Its success led to its adoption by other car manufacturers who were used to carrying larger inventories.

Kaizen is mostly associated with manufacturing but its use has spread to other industries including transportation, commerce, retail, and healthcare.

What are the Five Principles of Kaizen?

At the core of every action taken in Kaizen are five main principles. These are:

  • Know your customer: Everyone in a company undertaking Kaizen should know who the main customer of the business is. With this knowledge, they’ll know the needs and wants of that customer and how to improve the process to meet them.
  • Let it flow: This principle means that the production process should be as smooth and continuous as possible. The process should have very little waste whether it’s wasted material or wasted effort.
  • Go to Gemba: Gemba means ‘The real place’ and in this principle, it’s used to refer to the place where the actual activity takes place. The goal of this principle is for the leadership to see and understand what is actually happening at the workstation.
  • Empower people: This principle advocates for giving the people who undertake certain activities the power to make changes to improve the process. This is because they know more about them than anyone else.
  • Be transparent: Information and data on improvements should be made available to everyone. This principle also emphasizes the need to track the effect of changes.

What are the Five Elements of Kaizen?

In addition to the five guiding principles of Kaizen, it’s important to also understand the five elements that are needed to successfully implement Kaizen. These elements are:

  • Teamwork: Success comes when employees work collaboratively towards a common goal. In this case, the goal is to improve internal company processes. Every employee is part of the team from the highest-ranking executives to line workers.
  • Personal discipline: Self-disciplined employees are more likely to make positive contributions through their work efforts. Being punctual, maintaining a high standard of quality in their work, and using resources wisely all benefit the company.
  • Improve Morale: Measures should be put in place to keep employee spirits high. This increases job satisfaction and enthusiasm. This can be done by offering incentives and rewards, competitive salaries, and good benefits.
  • Quality Circles: These are groups of employees that can regularly meet to come up with solutions, share ideas and expertise, etc. Quality circles expose employees to new perspectives and give them a means of measuring and improving their performances.
  • Suggestions for Improvement: All staff should be allowed to bring forward their ideas on how to make improvements. Their ideas should also be implemented if resources allow.

What are the Two Types of Kaizen

The two main types of Kaizen are Point Kaizen and System Kaizen. Point Kaizen is the most commonly practiced type of Kaizen. These are activities that are executed quickly and are usually in response to someone noticing something wrong in the workplace.

For example, a floor manager may come across some material that has been left on a walkway. They would immediately find the area supervisor to discuss the issue and the supervisor can follow up by ensuring the material is moved to its correct location.

On the other hand, System Kaizen is a planned event. The goal of such an event is to come up with solutions to several issues that have come up recently and are affecting the production process.

Before the event, the manager works with a team to develop a picture of the current state of things and the changes they’d like to see at some future moment, e.g., after six months. Point Kaizen can effect quick changes but it can also harm productivity in another location.

How Do You Implement Kaizen Culture?

Implementing Kaizen for the first time often marks a significant cultural change in a company. If implementation isn’t handled correctly, the lean initiative may encounter significant pushback and ultimately fail.

The first step in implementing Kaizen is to identify areas that require improvement. The current process should then be analyzed and solutions developed. Finally, the solutions can be implemented and their effectiveness evaluated. The process can later be repeated to address the shortcomings of the initial implementation. This is what leads to continuous improvement.

Common Tools for Implementing Kaizen

Many tools can be used to successfully implement Kaizen. Some of the common tools you’ll encounter are:

  • Deming or PDCA Cycle: PDCA stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act/Adjust. This is a four-step approach to implementing continuous improvement that’s regularly used when implementing changes in Kaizen culture.
  • Value stream mapping: This is a visual tool that captures the flow of material and information from the start of a process to the end.
  • 5S: This methodology is used to remove clutter from a workspace and organize the tools, materials, equipment, and other items needed at that station. It also contributes to the maintenance of tools, equipment, and machines.
  • Five Whys: This is a system that is used to get to the root cause of a problem when something goes wrong.
  • Fishbone diagrams: This a visual tool that is used to identify the cause of a problem.

What are the Benefits of Kaizen?

Companies stand to gain a lot through the successful implementation of Kaizen. Some of the benefits that can be realized include:

  • Improved efficiency through the elimination of different kinds of waste from the manufacturing process.
  • Higher product quality thanks to improved processes and fewer defects.
  • Higher employee satisfaction thanks to engagement with leadership on the process plus rewards and incentives.
  • Improve safety thanks to the identification and mitigation of risks and lower chances of tool or equipment failure.
  • Better teamwork across different levels of the company.
  • Higher employee retention rates due to job satisfaction.


Since the late 80s, Kaizen has become synonymous with lean manufacturing. This concept was introduced by Toyota and implemented in many Japanese companies but is now used by many companies throughout the world.

At the core of Kaizen are five principles and five elements are required for this ideology to be successfully implemented in a company. Kaizen has a wide scope and implementation relies on multiple tools that make the work easier.

Since Kaizen advocates for gradual change, it often takes a while before a company realizes the full benefits of this methodology. However, once Kaizen becomes part of a company’s everyday culture, the positive results will be there to last.

Additional Resources