Kaizen in Japan versus the English-Speaking World

In a discussion of the economic justification of Kaizen in the  TPS + 1 ENGINEERING discussion group on LinkedInKenyon Denning asked what Kaizen is and is not, and pointed to the English dictionary definitions on the web. Why look up a Japanese technical term in a general-purpose English dictionary? We should focus instead on what Kaizen means as a technical term in Japan.

If we are using it to mean something else, we are misleading our audiences, because they assume that you are talking about the approach that has contributed to the success of companies like Toyota, Honda, Matsushita, Kawasaki, and others, and that is the only reason they are listening. And the problem is that we are indeed using the term differently. The most common usage is in “Kaizen Events,” a project management format developed in the US that does not actually implement Kaizen. The popularity of Kaizen Events crowds out the genuine Kaizen from practically all the Lean implementation programs in the US. To see it in the US, your best bet is to visit Japanese transplant auto factories.

Over the past 35 years, Kaizen has become an English word. Among other data, Google about gives you the following chart of the use of Kaizen in English over time.  This chart based on a search of Google Books by ngram viewer. After rising steadily from 1978 to 2000, it has been holding steady through 2008, the latest point provided, at 0.33 words/million.

Use of Kaizen in English 1970-2008

Occurrences of “Kaizen” as a percentage of all words in English-language books

By comparison, for the same year, the following table gives Google’s occurrence rates for a few selected terms. I assume Google compares single words with other single words but I am not sure what it does with a 2-gram like “Lean manufacturing” that is used in speech like a single word.

Kaizen occurrences compared


The available on-line definitions for Kaizen in English dictionaries are as follows:

  1. Random House (2013):
    • A business philosophy or system that is based on making positive changes on a regular basis, as to improve productivity.
    • An approach to one’s personal or social life that focuses on continuous improvement.
    • Origin: < Japanese: literally, ‘continuous improvement’
  2. Collins Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition (2009):
    • A philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices that underlies total quality management and just-in-time business techniques
  3. Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon:
    • Japanese for continuous and incremental improvement, a business philosophy about working practices and efficiency; improvement in productivity or performance.
    • Etymology: Japanese ‘change for the better’

By contrast, following are a few Japanese views on the subject:

  1. The most common general language dictionary used in Japan is the Kojien (広辞苑). Its definition of Kaizen (改善) is “the act of making a bad place good again” (悪いところを改めてよくすること) and the example given is “improving the treatment” (待遇を改善する). The opposite is “changing for the worse” (改悪, Kaiaku).
  2. In a technical context, author Bunji Tozawa defines Kaizen as “changes in methods to make the work easier, conceived and implemented by those who do the work.”
  3. Another Japanese author to emphasize Kaizen is Masaaki Imai, who defines it as  “ongoing improvement involving everybody, without spending much money.” 
  4. In 1985, the Japanese Factory Management monthly (工場管理) issued a Dictionary of Shop Floor Kaizen (現場を改善する辞典), which managed not to contain a definition for “Kaizen,” but, like Tozawa and Imai, it emphasized that kaizen is something everybody does, to make the work easier to do, produce better quality output faster and cheaper, while making the workplace safer. The list covers every known dimension of manufacturing performance except morale, which improves as by-product.

To Tozawa, each discrete change is a Kaizen;  to Imai, Kaizen is the process by which these improvements are made on a continuing basis. I have not seen an explicit emphasis in Tozawa’s writings about Kaizens being cheap, but it is implicit in the idea that the improvements are done by the people who do the work. Cheap, however, does not mean free, and Kaizen activities commonly involve giving individuals or teams license to spend a few hundred dollars at a hardware store for a project, but a $50K investment would be outside the scope of Kaizen.

None of the English dictionaries says anything about changes being made in work methods, by the people who do the work, and requiring little or no investment. In none of the Japanese descriptions of Kaizen does it rise to the level of a “business philosophy.” The nature of Kaizen is best shown through examples, and I would like to share one that struck me as a particularly vivid illustration.

Traditional Japanese squat toilets on Shinkansen trains

Traditional Japanese squat toilets on Shinkansen trains

Standard train toilets

Standard train toilets

About 15 years ago, Kojo Kanri focused an issue on Kaizen in the kind of dirty jobs that do not receive much management attention (泥臭い改善, dorokusai kaizen). There was in particular a story about a circle of high-speed train janitors who were tired of cleaning the same toilets 8 times a day. These trains were equipped with traditional, Japanese squat toilets that international passengers did not know how to use and messed up as a result.

One obvious solution was to replace these toilets with the worldwide standard. It would have been no hardship for the Japanese passengers, because this style is already used in 90% of homes and work places in Japan. But replacing these toilets in 100 16-carriage trains could not have been done quickly, and was an investment beyond the scope of Kaizen.

So the janitors took a number of simpler steps, and measured the results in terms of the number of required cleanings per toilet per day. This included posting some graphic explanations on how to use the equipment, painting outlines of where users should place their feet, and finally materializing the right locations with rubber pads to make it awkward to place your feet anywhere else. At the end of the project, the required cleanings were down to one toilet per day.

Earlier posts on Kaizen in this blog include the following:



Lean Assembly, Lean Logistics, and Euclides Coimbra’s Changes

My fellow consultant and author Euclides Coimbra has only written two reviews on Amazon, both on July 3, 2006, giving five stars to my books Lean Assembly and Lean Logistics, and commenting as follows:

  1. About Lean Assembly: “Very good book. Full of details. Useful for implementers. Knowledgeable readers can find many info between the lines. A wonderful contribution for Kaizen and Lean knowledge.”
  2. About Lean Logistics: “Following Lean Assembly Lean Logistics is a natural continuation. The style is the same and the information as valuable as Lean Assembly. A must have for any Kaizen and Lean implementer. Lots of details and useful information.”

A few months later, I went to work for him, and grew to appreciate his consulting talents. We parted later on good terms and I considered him a friend.

I just received a copy of his 2013 book, Kaizen in Logistics & Supply Chains, and found much overlap in subject matter with the two books of mine that he previously considered a “wonderful contribution” and a “must have.” I assume he changed his mind because they are not in the bibliography, and I couldn’t find my name anywhere in his book.

Improving operations: How far can you go with common sense?

In the Lean Six Sigma discussion group on LinkedIn, Brian P. Sheets argues that ” the alphabet soup of acronyms describing the multitude of process improvement & management methodologies that have come and gone over the last 50 years […]  is just plain, old, common sense.”  The list he targets in this statement is Six Sigma, TQM, BPR, BPM, TOC, MBO, Kaizen, and Gemba Kaizen, and overlap the one I discussed earlier in this blog. To support his argument, he invokes not only the great work done in US manufacturing during World War II without these acronyms, but goes back all the way to Egypt’s pyramids.

I see things differently. The old days were not so great and we have learned a few new tricks in the 68 years since the end of World War II, as a result of which we are not only able to make better products, but we also use fewer people to make them, at a higher quality. There definitely is something to some of the ideas that have been packaged under various brands in that time, and it is definitely more than common sense.

What is common sense anyway? The common sense approach to a problem is the solution that would be chosen by an intelligent person without any specialized knowledge. It is what you resort to when faced with a new situation you are unprepared for, like the businessman played by Anthony Hopkins in The Edge, who is stranded in the Alaskan wilderness by a plane crash and has to kill a grizzly.

Once you have been working on something for a few years, however, you are supposed to have acquired specialized knowledge of it, and apply solutions that are beyond common sense. And these solutions are counter-intuitive to anyone without this experience. Lean manufacturing concepts like one-piece flow or heijunka are bewildering to beginners, because they have nothing to go by beyond their common sense.

Common sense,” Descartes said, “is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, for each one thinks he is so well-endowed with it that even those who are hardest to satisfy in all other matters are not in the habit of desiring more of it than they already have.” After that, he proceeds to explain a method “to seek truth in science” and presents three applications of this method, the best known being analytic geometry. All of this is far beyond common sense.

For all these reasons, I am not too fond of invoking common sense in support of any new concept. What you really need is a rationale, and experimental proof through a small scale implementation.

To consultants on point Kaizen: forget about it | Bodo Wiegand’s Watch

See on Scoop.itlean manufacturing

“Sometimes, I can’t believe it – within the past 2 weeks, I was at 2 plants in Switzerland and Germany, that have both tried to introduce Lean for a year and a half, using Point Kaizens in the whole company, and failed mercilessly…”

Michel Baudin‘s insight:

This is Bodo Wiegand’s monthly newsletter. It is in German. In the past, I have provided complete translations of some of his letters and may do so again if there is popular demand.

In the meantime, if you cannot read German, you can use Google translate to get the gist of what he is saying.

See on wiegandswarte.de

A "Kaizen" Improvement at a Wine Bar – Is it "Lazy" or Smart? | Mark Graban

See on Scoop.itlean manufacturing

“Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” – Robert Heinlein, American science fiction writer (July 7, 1907

With “kaizen,” the Japanese word meaning “change for the better” (and an improvement methodology), it often seems like a fine line between “lazy” and “efficient.”

The word “lazy,” has negative connotations, while “efficient” is positive. But one of the primary directions in the kaizen approach is to make improvements that make your own work easier.

In healthcare, making ones work easier might translate into rearranging supplies to reduce the amount of walking required. This frees up more time for patient care, which leads to better quality outcomes and shorter hospital stays – meaning a cost savings. So is “laziness” really that bad if applied in a good way?…

See on www.linkedin.com

Michel Baudin’s review of The Spirit of Kaizen | Amazon.com

See on Scoop.itlean manufacturing

The key message of this book is that, no matter what your situation is, you should only try to improve it with small changes and that large changes never work because “we are built to resist radical change.” The author explains that the perspective of change sets off an alarm in a part of your brain called the amygdala, which confuses the change with a charging lion, triggers a flight-or-fight response, and prevents you from thinking rationally.

According to the author, a series of small steps works because they manage not to set off your alarms, and you are like the legendary frog who doesn’t react to small increases in water temperature until he is boiled. But wait! The author does not use this metaphor. To him, the fear response is purely irrational. The production manager who has spent 25 years working up from the shop floor should have no fear of losing her job to the young whippersnapper touting the latest change program.

See on www.amazon.com

Kaizen management in Central Asia | Times of Central Asia

See on Scoop.itlean manufacturing

BISHKEK, February 26 (TCA) — The market economy requires new competitive advantages to develop companies and retain leadership in a particular industry. Part of the solution is to attract investments and loans, but it still does not guarantee success and stable profits. International donors have volunteered to help Central Asian businessmen, offering to introduce the concept of Japanese management called Kaizen. The author of the concept of doing business which excludes loss is Masaaki Imai, and it is based on the idea of “continuous improvement”.

“The principles of lean production are becoming fundamental in some enterprises in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan,” said Anatoly Maslov, an expert…

Michel Baudin‘s insight:

News about Lean fron Kyrgyzstan! The author can’t tell the difference between Lean, Kaizen, and ISO 9001, but this kind of confusion also occurs outside of Central Asia.

Most interesting, as usual, are the examples of companies achieving performance improvements so spectacular that they make you wonder about the starting point.

See on www.timesca.com

Please Don’t Steal THIS Idea – Paying a % Bonus for Cost Savings | Mark Graban

See on Scoop.itlean manufacturing

“In the Kaizen approach, stealing the ideas of others isn’t a negative thing. If somebody else implemented an idea and you can use that idea in your area, a Kaizen organization ENCOURAGES the borrowing, stealing, adoption, and adaptation of ideas. There’s no shame in that. This idea was being preached at one hospital I visited yesterday, which was nice to see.

But… USA Today had a blurb the other day about one idea you shouldn’t steal. It’s an idea that’s already proven not to work – paying bonuses based on the value of improvement ideas.”

Michel Baudin‘s insight:

Mark exposes a “common sense” payment scheme that in fact discourages teamwork and turns employees into bounty hunters who withhold information from each other.

See on www.leanblog.org

Companies use kaizen to improve

See on Scoop.itlean manufacturing

It used to take 34 steps to open a checking account at Great Western Bank.

Michel Baudin‘s insight:

This article is focused on improvement done at Great Western Bank, a regional bank with 200 locations and 1,600 employees, inspired by similar work done at mid-size manufacturers Raven Industries and Daktronics, and contractor Muth Electric.

The improvements seem substantial. The article otherwise contains a few minor eyebrow raisers that, to be fair, may be due to misunderstandings by the reporter.

The subtitle describes Kaizen as a “Japanese method,” but later explains that “the work is done in Kaizen events,…” Kaizen events are an American method and unknown in Japan. And what is implemented through Kaizen events is not Kaizen as understood in Japan.

“Kaizen is considered the building block of lean production…” Well, I can think of a few other building blocks.

“… the resulting strategies are implemented […] within days of the event.” Kaizen events don’t just identify strategies, but changes implemented primarily during the event itself, not in the days that follow.

See on siouxfallsbusinessjournal.argusleader.com