Kaizen - Separating the Myths from Reality

Despite the popularity of the word “Kaizen”, I often hear inconsistencies and misinformation (e.g., “myths”) associated with the word. It's time to sort out what a “Kaizen” really is… and is not.

What exactly does "Kaizen" really mean?

The word “Kaizen” (改善) is a Japanese (Sino Japanese) word that literally means “renew for good.” However, it is typically translated into English as “improvement”.

Myth #1

“Kaizen” means “small improvement”… or “incremental” improvements… or a “never-ending journey” of continual improvement. This myth is perpetuated through MANY publications, including the ASQ Quality Glossary, which states:

A Japanese term that means gradual, unending improvement by doing little things better and setting and achieving increasingly higher standards. Masaaki Imai made the term famous in his book, Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success.

Japanese people use the term “Kaizen” to mean ANY kind of improvement; whether one-time or continuous, large or small.

Myth #2

“Kaizen” is a specific methodology (aka “tool”).

As we've seen from its definition, a “Kaizen” can be ANY kind of “improvement” - regardless of the approach or methodology used to achieve that improvement.

The word “Kaizen” is often mistaken as representing a specific methodology because the term was popularized by Masaaki Imai outside Japan through his book “Kaizen: Japanese spirit of Improvement” in 1985. In this book, Masaaki Imai “lumped” many of the popular quality-related concepts at the time under a single umbrella that he captioned “Kaizen”.

So while Masaaki Imai did NOT create/invent the term, he could be credited with having created the “Masaaki Imai Kaizen” philosophy.

Kaizen means improvement.
Moreover, it means continuing improvement in personal life, home life, social life, and working life. When applied to the workplace Kaizen means continuing improvement involving everyone – managers and workers alike.”
~ Masaaki Imai

One might ask, “Is the “Masaaki Imai Kaizen” philosophy still valid/relevant today (over 35 years later)?
While some of the ideas he promoted weren't valid even at the time that he wrote about them (e.g., “Zero Defects”), others remain valid today (e.g., Robotics, Automation). Ultimately, when Masaaki Imai wrote his book… and for many years since that time, there has been a tradition of quality professionals striving to find ways to improve quality. And Masaaki Imai was a valuable contributor to that tradition.

As with any author promoting ideas, we should identify and keep the good (useful) concepts, while discarding those that are no longer valid or useful. This is how we learn and progress as a people.

Myth #3

The “Kaizen” concept is only applicable to manufacturing processes.

The word “Kaizen” is applicable in any circumstance where improvements take place - whether in the context of a business, a non-profit organization, or in one's personal life.

Myth #4

Kaizen can only be achieved through small group initiatives (e.g., QCC - Quality Control Circle).

The ASQ Quality Glossary states:

Quality circle:
A quality improvement or self-improvement study group composed of a small number of employees (10 or fewer) and their supervisor. Quality circles originated in Japan, where they are called quality control circles.

Quality (Control) Circles typically rely upon crude unstructured brainstorming… which Merriam-Webster defines as: “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group”.1)

“Brainstorming” was first popularized in the late 1930s by Alex Faickney Osborn, an advertising executive in a book titled “Applied Imagination”. Osborn proposed that groups could double their creative output by using the method of brainstorming.2)

Since its introduction, the effectiveness of “brainstorming” has been studied in detail. And these studies have consistently revealed the same results:

Brainstorming groups produce more ideas than an individual but fewer and poorer quality ideas than from individuals working separately. In other words, brainstorms dilute the sum of individual efforts.
~ Diehl, E., & Stroebe, W. (1991). “Productivity loss in idea generating groups: Tracking down the blocking effect”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 392-403)

While there continue to be several publications and websites promoting the use of brainstorming (often from consults offering ways to conduct more effective/productive brainstorming sessions), there are plenty of other publications and websites describing the problems (ineffectiveness) of brainstorming. For example:

Ultimately, there is so much psychological inertia supporting the continued use of brainstorming that few people have a sufficient motivating force to abandon it and seek a better technique(s)… such as TRIZ.

“Brainstorming” is used for “idea” sourcing. NOT “solution” sourcing. Consequently, “Brainstorming” has little, if anything, to do with problem-solving.

Myth #5

Standard work (Standardization) is not a part of Kaizen.

A “problem” is defined as the gap between the current state and the desired state. And if the current state is in constant flux, then we have no stable/reliable reference point with which to define that gap. Therefore, it is essential for the “current state” to be consistent/steady (standardized) before the problem can be clearly defined.

Taiichi Ohno, Father of the TPS (“Toyota Production System”) recognized this when he said:

Consider for a moment all of the products that have actually gotten worse with each new edition/“upgrade” rather than better. This is often due to companies being “out of touch” with their customer base… and/or more focused on attracting new/different customers; with a different set of needs/requirements.

Change for the sake of change is not necessarily an improvement.

Osborn, A.F. (1963) “Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving” (Third Revised Edition). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.