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KAIZEN as originally defined in the book of: "KAIZEN, the Key to Japan's Competitive Success", by Mr. Masaaki Imai, is:

KAIZEN means improvement. Moreover, KAIZEN 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.

KAIZEN is a Japanese word meaning gradual and orderly, continuous improvement. The KAIZEN business strategy involves everyone in an organization working together to make improvements 'without large capital investments'.

KAIZEN is a culture of sustained continuous improvement focusing on eliminating waste in all systems and processes of an organization. The KAIZEN strategy begins and ends with people. With KAIZEN, an involved leadership guides people to continuously improve their ability to meet expectations of high quality, low cost, and on-time delivery. KAIZEN transforms companies into 'Superior Global Competitors'.

Two Elements of KAIZEN

There are two elements that construct KAIZEN, improvement/change for the better and ongoing/continuity. Lacking one of those elements would not be considered KAIZEN. For instance, the expression of "business as usual" contains the element of continuity without improvement. On the other hand, the expression of "breakthrough" contains the element of change or improvement without continuity. KAIZEN should contain both elements.

KAIZEN Concept in Our Individual Life

KAIZEN, as you could learn from the definition, is a common word and very natural to individual, continuous improvement in personal life, home life, social life and working life. Everybody deserves to and should be willing to improve himself/herself for the better continually. "If a man has not been seen for three days, his friends should take a good look at him to see what changes have befallen him" quoted from the old Japanese saying, describes how natural KAIZEN is.

Maintenance, Innovation, and KAIZEN

In our concepts, three functions should happen simultaneously within any organizations: Maintenance, Innovation, and KAIZEN. By maintenance, we refer to maintaining the current status, the procedures are set and the standards are implemented. People in the lower level of organization mostly do that, they maintain their standards.

By Innovation, we refer to breakthrough activities initiated by top management, buying new machines, new equipment, developing new markets, directing R&D, change of strategy etc.

In the middle there is KAIZEN, small steps but continuing improvement. KAIZEN should be implemented by the lower/middle management and the workers, with the encouragement and direction of the top. The top management responsibility is to cultivate a KAIZEN working climates and cultures in the organization.


Not a day should go without some kind of improvement being made somewhere in the company. When KAIZEN is adapted in organizations and management perspectives, however, it is easier to talk about it than to implement it. It is very natural that people will propose some kind of change in their own work place, when they become unsatisfied with their present conditions. Some of the improvements could be carried outright away. Perhaps, the boss won't even notice them. However, when approval is required, several kinds of responses from the boss could have taken place. The ideal situation is that the boss encourages their subordinates to carry out their ideas. The boss then appreciates the efforts or gives recognition. That's what people expect when they propose something. The positive response given by the boss will then develop trust with the subordinates and stimulate other improvements. Cumulatively, this will create momentum for continuing improvement.

The Wet Blanket List

However, life in the organization is not as easy. The boss could ask you a silly question like: "it is not broken, why should we change it" or "the procedures is fine with me, why should we changed it?". From your perspective, you know that if you change it, the boss will blame you. The boss just did not want to give you a try, with a lot of reasons and/or no reasons. You could not do anything anymore, "the boss is always right" like the saying goes. There are so many bosses like that. The book KAIZEN talks about the list called "The Wet Blanket List". The bosses should encourage their subordinates, but in a real life, the wet blankets put out the "fire" of improvement suggestions. Here is the list of wet blankets:



I am too busy to study it

It's a good idea, but the timing is premature

It is not in the budget

Theory is different from practice

Isn't there something else for you to do ?

I think it doesn't match corporate policy

It isn't our business; let someone else think about it

Are you dissatisfied with your work ?

It's not improvement, it's common sense

I know the result, even if we don't do it

I will not be held accountable for it

Can't you think of a better idea ?


Yes, I heard them from my boss, you may say, however, reflect on yourself before you blame your boss. Your subordinates may also hear them from you frequently. In an inefficient organization, everybody tends to throw wet blankets everywhere. You could also add more wet blankets from your own vocabulary, the list could be endless.

The Real Organizational Life

That's what really happens in organizational life. Bosses discourage subordinates and the subordinates become skeptical. They quit making proposals, suggestions and improvement and the organization becomes very stagnant. Sometime, the bosses are aware of the stagnation and buy a new machine, change the layouts, or even hire a bunch of consultants to make a breakthrough. They do that because it's their function to make breakthroughs. They change everything and rock the organization. However, they don't change and still criticize their subordinate, tossing wet blankets to the people. This is very important point, that change and improvement should start from top management. Top management should change their own behavior when dealing with subordinates.

Thus, KAIZEN Institute puts the top management commitment as priority number one. Without such change, we could not start KAIZEN in the organizations. Traditional management always says that there are two classes of people in the organization. One is a group of thinkers who think and innovate new ideas, and another is a group of workers who are required to work with their hands. The worker class should not think of anything, except work, work and work. There is an actual management philosophy in parts of the world saying "factory workers should leave their brains by the entrance gate prior to entering the factory". The message is clear, management doesn't want your thoughts, they only need your hands and muscles, however, this concept is confronting natural law.

Ten Basic Tips for KAIZEN activities

As you know by now, it is not easy to implement the KAIZEN philosophy to where the culture is not solid to adopt it. KAIZEN Institute can help to change the way of thinking of your people and the culture and make a difference. Here is the first advice from us for you to start with, the list of basic tips for KAIZEN to have the first step of KAIZEN implementation.



Discard conventional fixed ideas.

Think of how to do it, not why it cannot be done.

Do not make excuses. Start by questioning current practices.

Do not seek perfection. Do it right away even if for only 50% of target.

Correct it right away, if you make mistake.

Do not spend money for KAIZEN, use your wisdom.

Wisdom is brought out when faced with hardship.

Ask 'WHY?" five times and seek root causes.

Seek the wisdom of ten people rather than the knowledge of one.

KAIZEN ideas are infinite.

Further Reading

What is Kaizen
Written by NASA


The Kaizen Institute
Kaizen training company



E-mail Steve Margetts