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Kaizen | Continuous Improvement

By Greg | April 10, 2009

Toyota Kaizen

During the exciting days of learning about and implementing the Toyota System I asked one of our youngest workers – Lukas, what he would change in our production plant if he owned it. His reply was: “I’ve never thought about it.” But he started looking around and thinking about it. I know this because a few days later he shared his first idea of a small but significant improvement. About once a month our cars were loaded on a container and shipped out. Our forklift would lift three cars held together by specially designed metal construction, with 3 workers on each side making sure the cars were safe. The most dangerous part was the place between the gate of our building and the container which was standing outside. Lukas stated the obvious: “The reason why seven people are needed to carry the cars out of the building instead of just one instead of one is because of that step and the bad quality pavement right outside. If we fix it – only the forklift operator will be needed to take the cars out of the building.”

We fixed the problem (with very low costs) and from then on our monthly shipments were less costly and, who knows – we might have avoided some nasty accident which we were just asking for with the uneven pavement . This is how the era of Kaizen began in our company. From that point forward our production plant was not run with 3 heads and 60+ hands, but with 30+ heads (and at least one extra pair of hands that no longer avoided getting dirty – yes the Toyota System totally changed my attitude about my role as a manager).

Kaizen - continuous improvement

Kaizen - continuous improvement

You can imagine what implementation of this improvement must have meant for Lukas. I think it changed that young worker even more than the question “So, what would you change?”. After that experience he started treating the company as his own home and he got to the point that he had ideas for improvement on a daily basis. Others started joining him and gradually our work stations were becoming less dangerous, more pleasant and more efficient. The whole production process now makes much more sense than before and it just feels like a more friendly place. How nice it is to know that next week things will make even more sense and our workers will work not harder but smarter and perhaps safer. Probably the greatest outcome of Kaizen is that the workers are happier because our plant is no longer a battle field between the management and the workers but they feel appreciated and have the appropriate sense of pride in the difference they make.

Kaizen, which in Japanese means good (zen) change (kai) is a philosophy that motivates people to constantly improve their surroundings. I personally find the idea not only inspiring but also inspired. I grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. The Communistic system discouraged people from making improvements and so people seemed to have gradually lost their natural tendency to try to make things better. As a result I grew up in a pretty gray and very stagnant environment. Then a simple electrician and a few other workers in some shipyard decided to change a few things (who gave them that faith that their efforts might actually destroy the Communistic system?!). Their determination led to a total change of the political and economic system which gave way to progress. Now – two decades later – everything around me is in constant movement. Pretty much everything is improving. People are happier – they seem to be more confident in their own abilities. Many of them are the same people who back then – during Communism, would just go through the motions but now, they are new creatures. Actually – they are more creators than creatures. As Steven R. Covey put it: they act instead of being acted upon.

What needed to happen to make similar changes in our production plant? Only two things: The workers needed to be asked to share their ideas for improvements and they had to feel that their ideas were welcomed. The worse thing that we as managers could do would be to say: “If your idea is so simple – why didn’t you share it before? We have wasted so much money for so many years because you didn’t care to share this simple solution?!” Imagine how you would feel if this was the response to your suggestion? I know I would have a hard time sharing any improvement ideas in the future.

Kaizen and the idea of Continuous Improvement do not suggest that everybody should all of a sudden become managers or that anybody can start doing things in his or her way. Order and structure are very important elements of any organization. What my experience with the Toyota System and Kaizen Philosophy taught me is that empowering the workers doesn’t have to lead to chaos but if done properly will lead to greater efficiency. Individual workers know more about their particular parts of the production process than anything else. Each one of them is a creative individual. Ignoring their knowledge and experience and not allowing them to use their natural, creative potential is waste or “big muda” as my boss would say.

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Topics: Lean Concepts | 24 Comments »

24 Responses to “Kaizen | Continuous Improvement”

  1. Patricia Says:
    April 14th, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Enjoyed your story of Lukas. Toyota has used Kaizen and Continuous Improvement very effectively to make them one of the leading automobile manufacturers. It does bring management and workers closer together to make them a team. Go Team Toyota!

  2. Lauri Says:
    April 15th, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Lucas did a great job of getting rid of Muda, which I learned about from your other post!

    I agree with Patricia, Go Team Toyota!!

  3. Greg Says:
    April 16th, 2009 at 11:26 am

    The Toyota System really does bring management and workers closer together. One of the first thing I learned as I was implementing the System was that the workers really do know a lot – there are things that the management has absolutely no idea about but for those people who actually handle the material adding real value to it – it is just common sense. The system really helped me appreciate those guys.

  4. Poka-Yoke | you can’t go wrong | The Toyota System Says:
    May 12th, 2009 at 4:24 am

    [...] Toyota System or Lean Philosophy aims for perfection (it isn’t called Continuous Improvement by accident). In manufacturing producing sporadic defects is better than making frequent defects, [...]

  5. Jahndroff Y Mantles Says:
    November 20th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    WHAT….goes DOWN in an organization


    HOW…comes UP in an Organization

    Management knows what is wrong, they have all the data and see the BIG picture.. but their vision is near sighted as to HOW the problem can be solved.

    Workers in a process don’t know what might be wrong they have limited vision of the organization as a WHOLE, but they know HOW to solve a problem that they deal with daily as they understand it.

    By teaming up with a KNOWN problem to be solved Management can provide the leadership and empower workers to solve problems using the workers expertise of HOW it can be done.


  6. Gautam Says:
    August 9th, 2010 at 3:00 am

    I enjoyed the story. would have been better he had narrated entire story of the kaizen experience at Toyota.


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    February 27th, 2011 at 3:07 pm

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  8. When Perfectionism Turns Into Procrastination (And Some Great Resources For Help) | MBA Balance Says:
    July 26th, 2011 at 11:26 am

    [...] Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer. In business school many of us learned the case about Toyota using Kaizen methods of continuous improvement to reduce costs, improve quality and better engage the workforce. This book lays out interesting [...]

  9. KaiZen- How about improving a Li’l? ;) « Mount Meghdoot Says:
    October 2nd, 2011 at 9:12 am

    [...] Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning ‘change for the better’ used to manage costs during a product’s planning and design stages and has been used by some Japanese firms over 20 years. It was firstly used in famous car company Toyota. [...]

  10. Kaizen Efficiency: Small Changes, Huge Results through Continuous Improvement - Excellants | Excellants Says:
    February 20th, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    [...] While hard work is detrimental to success, excellent people and organizations understand the art of working hard and working smart. They understand that their best efforts must not only be made with blood, sweat and tears but also be efficient and goal-oriented. Kaizen Productivity is the combination of continuous improvement mixed with boundless effort. When this habit is mastered, the fear of failure diminishes and the number of successful accomplishments -both major and minor – increases. Excellent people always, always, always look for ways to improve in many different aspects. Kaizen productivity is the single most important habit of making many small changes -raising standards and reducing waste along the way – to produce significant change. Think Sony. Or Toyota. [...]

  11. Translation Guy » Toyota May Sue CNN Over Translation Says:
    March 14th, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    [...] composure under persistent questioning seemed very Zen-like, the fruit, no doubt, of years of kai-zen quality assurance [...]

  12. Kaizen: One small step can make a difference « EGR 644 Spring 2012's Blog Says:
    March 26th, 2012 at 10:23 am

    [...] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyota_Production_System “Kaizen – Continuous Improvement” http://www.thetoyotasystem.com/lean_concepts/kaizen.php http://www.toyota-forklifts.co.uk/EN/company/Toyota-Production-System/Kaizen/Pages/default.aspx The [...]

  13. andrew langtry Says:
    June 6th, 2012 at 3:01 am

    I had a few things with new car I paid cash for, and have to say nothing was being done timely till I said in a email and blog that I work for a company that has also adopted the kaizen approach and we work it through improvement and next was taken care of. The point is kaizen, gemba and whole principle do work.

  14. andrew langtry Says:
    June 6th, 2012 at 3:11 am

    I just also wanted to say that as a employee of another company who has adapted the kaizen I just wanted to personally thank vince lombardi at avondale Toyota in Arizona for him taking care of the issues since my new car purchase. And that he is an example of of kaizen excellence.

  15. ranga Says:
    June 7th, 2012 at 5:44 am

    I need to give a small kaizen for toyota cars. how can i give that.so pls inform.

  16. khomotso Says:
    July 16th, 2012 at 8:08 am

    anytime u need an improvemnt,ask ur workers”u cant go wrong’

  17. A philosophical approach to innovation | Says:
    August 7th, 2012 at 6:23 am

    [...] across all levels and hierarchies. An excellent example of the effectiveness of Kaizen can found in this anecdote from the automobile manufacturer, Toyota, on how they first began incorporating Kaizen in their [...]

  18. Kaizen toyota | 747mediagroup Says:
    September 5th, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    [...] Kaizen | Continuous Improvement | The Toyota SystemApr 10, 2009 … Kaizen, which in Japanese means good (zen) change (kai) is a philosophy that motivates people to constantly improve their surroundings. [...]

  19. 7 Open Source Questions With Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst « MattsLens Says:
    November 29th, 2012 at 12:49 am

    [...] compared open source software development to the Kaizen “continuous-improvement” manufacturing system made famous by Toyota. According to Whitehurst, open source is the digital equivalent of breaking [...]

  20. 7 Open Source Questions With Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst « Gadgetizing Says:
    November 29th, 2012 at 3:20 am

    [...] compared open source software development to the Kaizen “continuous-improvement” manufacturing system made famous by Toyota. According to Whitehurst, open source is the digital equivalent of breaking [...]

  21. 7 Open Source Questions With Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst « notiziario internet Says:
    November 29th, 2012 at 3:26 am

    [...] compared open source software development to the Kaizen “continuous-improvement” manufacturing system made famous by Toyota. According to Whitehurst, open source is the digital equivalent of breaking [...]

  22. Barnes & Noble in troubled waters | appazoogle Says:
    March 5th, 2013 at 9:43 am

    [...] on improving management-employee communication and shared experience (there’s reference to Toyota’s employee input practices), which, while pleasant to think about in a stick-it-to-the-man kind of way, don’t seem to be [...]

  23. jean marie Says:
    May 14th, 2013 at 8:25 am

    can we use kaizen in the food distribution sector?

  24. Toyota Brings Eastern Wisdom to a Harlem Soup Kitchen - Defining Wisdom | A Project of the University of Chicago - News Says:
    August 5th, 2013 at 8:57 am

    [...] Kaizen is a Japanese word that means "continued improvement" and for Toyota, kaizen has been an essential element in their success as an automobile company. According to their website, the "era of kaizen" began when a young employee suggested a small alteration should be made to their shipping system which saved them money and fostered a safer work enviroment. Now, Toyota has helped spread the "era of kaizen" to the Food Bank for New York City. [...]