“Kaizen” is a Japanese word that can be translated to mean “improvement” or “change for the better.” The two characters that make up the word are “Kai” (meaning "change") and “zen” (meaning “good”).
In the origins of Lean (the Toyota Production System), Kaizen was practiced by all employees. It was a part of everyone’s job to identify and implement small incremental improvements in the workplace. Masaaki Imai documented this in his seminal 1986 book KAIZEN. Norman Bodek and others wrote about the “quick and easy kaizen” process that was was used in many (but not all!) Japanese companies in this time, before being brought to the United States and other countries.
Today, Kaizen is practiced in many organizations as a daily improvement process, built upon the discipline of the Plan Do Study Adjust (PDSA) or Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) cycles. It’s a structured but non-bureaucratic way to engage everybody in identifying problems and improving the workplace.
Kaizen is one of the two key pillars of The Toyota Way management system, interrelated with equal importance:
1) Continuous Improvement (Kaizen)
2) Respect for People
Mutual respect between leaders, staff, customers, suppliers, and partners is critical to Kaizen. This element of mutual respect drives leaders to engage everyone in their Kaizen efforts, with the belief that everybody takes pride in doing good work. This includes the idea that everybody has an important role to play in continuous improvement and that the people doing the work are the experts and the ones who can help improve in ways both large and small. As such, leaders strive to make Kaizen part of everyone’s jobs, empowering their staff to improve their work in order to provide the highest quality goods and services to their customers at the lowest cost, with safety and satisfaction in mind.
Many people associate the phrase “a Kaizen” to mean a formal team-based project often called a “Kaizen Event.” These events are often a week long and are facilitated by a consultant (often an outsider, sometimes a facilitator who is an employee of the company holding the event).
Some organizations call Kaizen Events Rapid Improvement Events (RIEs) or Rapid Process Improvement Workshops (RPIWs). Whatever the name, this powerful approach can help you improve and help your team learn how to improve.
Originally called a “Kaizen Blitz,” this format for improvement was introduced by Japanese consultants to manufacturing companies in Connecticut in the early 1990s. The Blitz, or Event, was meant to be a demonstration to show that improvement (even radical change) was possible. For many companies (and consultants) the Kaizen Event became the predominant way to drive change in a workplace.
A Kaizen Event is typically used for larger, more complex changes that involve multiple roles or departments. An Event allows a team to make bigger improvements happen, as people are pulled off the job and allowed to focus full time, for a few days or a week, on improving or reinventing part of their workplace.
Kaizen Events are powerful, but not everything needs to be a formal event.
Many organizations use Events as a way of teaching Kaizen, PDSA, and problem solving (amongst other Lean methods) to people so they can then continue practicing Kaizen on a daily basis. Other organizations get started with small continuous improvements, getting employees comfortable with Kaizen so they can then move up to larger, more complex Kaizen Events.
A Kaizen Event is just one form of Kaizen (improvement). The best organizations in combine the practice of episodic formal events and smaller continuous improvements. As leading Lean organizations, authors, and practitioners would say…
You don't have to make a decision between daily continuous improvement OR Kaizen Events… the best organizations do them both, and do both very well.