The Kaizen approach: 6 steps to continuous improvement

The Kaizen approach: 6 steps to continuous improvement

By Ricardo Singh
Updated: 20 May 2020, first publication: April 2020

Are you familiar with the Kaizen approach?

Known for being a quality management, collaboration, and continuous improvement tool, the Kaizen approach advocates progressive change management in a business, while limiting risks.

More efficient, more productive, more competent... We are constantly pushed to be better while going to the essential. This can be quite a challenge!

There are two schools of thought for this: radical change or continuous improvement. The fast track or the slow track. Pressure or experimentation. The Kaizen method, in the second category, is appreciated in process management for its reassuring side, supervised and not rushed, with the perspective of a soft but constant evolution.

From productivity to well-being at work, we will explain how this managerial technique works. And, perhaps you will want to try it?

What is the Kaizen approach?

A short history of the Kaizen approach

A true Japanese development philosophy, kaizen is composed of two words, kai 改, and zen 善 which means "change" and "better".

Also known as the small-step work improvement approach, or the method of continuous improvement, the Kaizen approach was developed in the United States under the Training With Industry (TWI) program, set up by consultants (including W. Edwards Deming) under the supervision of General MacArthur, to help the Japanese industry recover after World War II.

Masaaki Imai made the term famous in 1986 with his book “Kaizen: The Key to Japan's competitive success”.

Initially implemented in the industrial sector, it was used for lean manufacturing, a management approach to reduce waste and increase profits.

Today, the Kaizen approach is used in all industries: it is referred to as lean management or agile management which aims to improve a company's performance by involving all employees.

The approach, therefore, requires a corporate culture adapted to this philosophy, and sometimes even guidance to change.

Be careful not to confuse the Kaizen approach with the Kaizen workshop, or kaizen blitz, or kaikaku (reform), which is used for major changes in a production system, a reengineering.

Personal and professional development

The Kaizen approach is increasingly used for personal development. Moreover, it is a vital tool for people who fear failure, abrupt changes, and frustration. They can use this approach to help learn a foreign language without putting pressure on themselves, quit smoking little by little and even overcome their shyness.


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The 5 elements of the Kaizen approach

The Kaizen approach consists of 5 founding elements :

  • teamwork,
  • personal discipline,
  • improved morale,
  • quality circles,
  • suggestions for improvement.

Chi va piano va sano ! (Slowly but surely!)

One step at a time!

The strategic objectives

Toyota has been using the Kaizen approach since it was created, it is the best ambassador of the approach and the use it to improve processes, tools, and skills to :

  • optimise:
    • productivity,
    • safety (reduce risks),
    • quality,
    • deadlines,
    • costs,
    • working conditions,
  • value collective intelligence and decompartmentalize skills,
  • reduce waste ( to improve inventory management).

Why implement the Kaizen approach?

The benefits of the Kaizen approach

Are you afraid to step out of your comfort zone? Then, the Kaizen approach is an ideal solution for you! It can be used to :

  • set up new habits with minimal effort,
  • simplify workflows and task management by breaking down an objective into sub-objectives that are easier to achieve,
  • reduce stress:
    • setbacks are accepted better because there are fewer consequences and they are less time-consuming,
    • progress is clearer, with a path filled with as many successes as sub-objectives,
  • improve estimates of costs and time frames,
  • eliminate risk factors due to overly ambitious and outdated forecasts,
  • value and motivate employees at their workstation.

In short, the Kaizen approach improves the feasibility of a project and the morale of the teams!

The drawbacks

We are more creative without stress. But adopting an improvement process that is too gradual can be a barrier to breakthrough innovation. Indeed, this requires making "leaps" forward from time to time and reactivity that is incompatible with the time constraints of continuous improvement.

As a result, Toyota has set aside the Kaizen approach for the manufacturing of its autonomous vehicles. Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, explained :

At Toyota, Kaizen or Continuous Improvement, is at the heart of everything we do. It remains the foundation and one of our biggest strengths. However, in these unprecedented times, we need additional approaches. In this particular domain, it’s simply not enough to only take small steps. You have to take leaps, which often results in failure. If you are lucky, after you have the courage to keep on failing again and again, you suddenly succeed.


However, an innovative company can still use the Kaizen approach to review internal administrative procedures, routine projects. They can even integrate it into the management of an innovative project by combining several methods, depending on the tasks, flexibility and reactivity they require.

How to use the Kaizen approach

Here is a video that explains how the Kaizen approach works:

The 6 steps of the Kaizen approach

  • identify an opportunity, an objective for improvement,
  • explore new ideas by consulting with your employees,
  • break the objective down into sub-objectives or deliverables,
  • plan the tasks for each sub-objective, without overlapping human and material resources or timeframes,
  • test, monitor progress and adapt the schedule,
  • move on to the next objective.

Methods that can be combined with the Kaizen approach

Many different approaches are used to break down projects, plan tasks, find the causes of problems, manage resources and monitor progress.

Among them (non-exhaustive list) :

  • the Deming wheel (or PDCA cycle, Plan - Do - Check - Act/Adjust, to test new processes in 4 steps),
  • TQM (total quality management) tools,
  • the 5 W’s method (Who? What? Where? When? How? Why?),
  • the 5 M’s (Ishikawa diagram) and the 5 P’s (for a search for the causes of problems),
  • the 5 S's (to improve a workspace; in Japanese: Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, Shitsuke or Clear the space of the superfluous, Tidy, Clean, Standardize, Progress),
  • the Six Sigma (a management method aimed at improving the quality and efficiency of processes filed by Motorola),
  • the WBS method (Work Breakdown Structure),
  • the critical chain (CCPM or Critical Chain Project Management),
  • the Adaptive Project Framework (APF),
  • the Kanban board (visual method based on the just-in-time method, to provide key information in a just-in-time manner).

Choose the right tool

With a new generation of software in SaaS (Software as a Service) mode, there are many tools that you can use to improve your processes and continuous improvement.

Thanks to the real-time collection of production data, or taking into account feedback from project managers, these IT solutions are constantly improving and adapting to the needs of their users.

In addition, unlike on-premise software installed in workstations and requires purchasing updates, cloud solutions are constantly evolving with technological improvements.

Many solutions are adapted to task management (Asana, Trello, and and offer functionalities that are in line with the Kaizen philosophy:

  • priority management,
  • roadmap,
  • incident management,
  • dashboards,
  • monitoring the profitability of projects…

There is also software dedicated to internal communication (Slack and Yammer) and idea management (Brightidea).

Step-by-step progress to meet your goals

What do you think, are you Kaizen-minded?

The well-being of a business depends on the well-being of its employees and on making their work easier.

There are many existing methods; choose the ones that fit your corporate culture and that have been proven to work in your teams. And why not combine them to meet special, continuous or short-term needs?

For several years now, appvizer has been improving the daily life of teams and managers by using the right tools.

Check out our articles and reviews and let us know what you think. This is the way to continuous improvement!

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