Kaizen is Japanese for “improvement” or “change for the best”, but in business terms it means a lot more than these terms alone. In business, Kaizen is a philosophy that focuses on continual improvement of processes in any organisation, and it has been used by many different industries. Kaizen involves improvement of all functions and can be used in all areas of an organisation. More importantly, it comes from every single employee, from the CEO, right through to the assembly line workers or equivalent, and when used properly it means every single employee feels involved in business decisions and progression, leading to higher levels of engagement and productivity. It is a fantastic model that was first used after the Second World War in Japan, and it can be used to the benefit of almost any organisation. There are two great benefits to Kaizen that most organisations can benefit from:
1. Reduce the Risk of Change
Many organisations will see that a process or system within their business needs changing, then they wait until they cannot wait any longer, then they will change it. Either that or they will leave everything as is, because everything is running fine, then every few years they will implement a massive period of change to try and shake things up and improve the running and or profit of the organisation. Having worked in a large supermarket for many years I have seen this sort of change taking place and I am aware of many of the downsides, for example:
It negatively impacts the employees. During times of heavy change stress often seems to reverberate through the business. Managers are under pressure to make sure the changes happen and the transition is smooth, and in an effort to make this happen they heap the pressure onto their employees. This is not great for employee engagement, and as we know, an unengaged or stressed employee is never as productive as an engaged and happy one. The more pressure you put on your employees to work harder, the less productivity and hard work you are likely to see.
It ups the cost of failure. The benefit of Kaizen is that small and continual change is easily undone. If you are making small changes on a daily basis then you can afford to be experimental, and see what works and what does not. This is not the case with large change. These bigger changes often cost a lot of money, take a lot of time, and involve the change of complex systems and even – in some cases – retraining of employees. When you have invested so much into such a change it pretty much has to work. If it doesn’t then organisations must either live with it and try to make it work, or change things back, costing more money, time, and employee happiness, as a result.
The implementation of Kaizen will reduce the need for large change and therefore will reduce the risk of change as a whole. The cost of failure using Kaizen is much lower given that if a small change does not work it is far easier to change it back. It is also much more beneficial for employees who will not have to deal with the stress of large change. Something which is easily measurable with pulse or mini staff surveys.
2. Keep Your Employees Fully Engaged
Your employees are the most important part of your organisation; without them you would have no one to deal with customers, create your product, refine your service, etc. What’s also true is that engaged employees are more productive than disengaged employees, and therefore if you want to get the most out of your people, you need to keep them happy by making sure they feel included and appreciated at their place of work.
This is often not an easy thing to do but, using Kaizen, you have a great way to ensure every employee feels included and involved in the organisation’s decision-making process and this can only lead to positive engagement. With large-scale change the decisions almost always come down from the top with little or no consultation with employees. The problem with this is it is the employees who will need to implement this change, and if they are not 100% behind it then you will soon find your productivity suffering.
I have come across many people who complain about upper management who make decisions for the employees despite it being viewed that they do not understand the effect it will have on the company from their boardroom position. This may or may not be true but the perception that it is true among your workforce will still have such an effect that it might as well be the case. It is your employees that are on the “front line” of your business every day – it is them who deal with the customers and have the most experience working with/delivering your product or service – so why wouldn’t you want to utilise this fantastic combined knowledge you potentially have at your fingertips.
Kaizen keeps your employees engaged
With Kaizen, employees are always consulted. Team meetings are held on a daily or weekly basis and employees are encouraged to bring forward any ideas or issues they may have in a safe and discrimination free environment. Most importantly, in Kaizen, these ideas are acted upon, and the changes are implemented. This is not to say that every change has to come from the bottom, but with a mixture of decision from up and down the business, you are creating a culture where every single employee feels like they have the opportunity to improve some part of the process. This feeling of inclusion will get everybody pulling in the same direction and should lead to far higher engagement levels.
The biggest problem with implementing this sort of system in many companies is that many employees do not feel comfortable coming forward with ideas and issues as they feel they will either not be taken seriously or they will be punished for speaking out. Getting just a couple of employees to start speaking up and showing that management will take their ideas or concerns seriously is a great way of getting everybody to a position where they feel able to raise and resolve issues, allowing you to reap the benefits of your most important stake holders ideas and advice.
So could your organisation benefit from using Kaizen? Do you implement large, risk heavy, periods of change that could be negatively impacting your employees? Do your employees feel like they can speak up or do they feel left out of important decisions? Kaizen is a relatively simple to implement initiative that you can start benefiting from almost straight away and continue to improve from for as long as you are using it. After all, that’s entirely the point.