Today KAIZEN™ is a popular management concept around the world. There are many books on the subject and many serious students and practitioners of KAIZEN™.
In 1985, almost nobody knew what KAIZEN™ was and “Lean” would not be coined for another decade. KAIZEN™ came out of obscurity with the publication of Masaaki Imai’s “KAIZEN™, The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success” (McGraw Hill 1986) and the founding of Kaizen Institute. In some ways the world has come a long way towards understanding KAIZEN™, but as Taiichi Ohno once said, “Understanding means doing”. KAIZEN™ is not a theory but practice.
Today, less than 5 % of the world is practicing KAIZEN™. Even among the companies who “know” KAIZEN™, perhaps only half of them understand its true meaning. A management system called Lean, built by the endless pursuit of KAIZEN™ is now understood to be a necessary strategy by most major corporations. Hospitals, governments and even small venture firms and startups are now adopting Lean practices. Knowledge is only a start; we must put KAIZEN™ into daily practice in order to become Lean.
Repeated studies have shown that somewhere between 50 % and 90 % of all work is wasted. This is true regardless of the country, industry or product. From the point of view of the customer, very little of our effort adds value. This is partially because of the law of entropy, partially due to how we design our processes, and partially because we do not sincerely listen to our customers. When people and organizations choose to focus more on themselves and their internal needs than on their customers, this creates a cultural problem. It makes organizations less capable of change, less adaptive, and as a result less likely to succeed long-term.
Even if we can copy the practices of the people and organizations we admire for a short time, making lasting change is difficult. Every company that has tried to adopt KAIZEN™, or every person who has tried to break a bad habit has experienced this. Human habits are hard to change, and organizations are in some ways nothing more than a collection of human habits. KAIZEN™ can help us develop positive habits of understanding problems with facts, seeking ideas from other people, experimenting with small changes, and trying again. These are habits that build change capability.
What about change in our daily lives? How much awareness do we have of the need to reduce wasted resources by applying KAIZEN™? Reflect for a moment on how you consume food. For most of us, this is a daily activity that we can influence. Studies show that 30 % or more of the food in the food supply chain, from farm to market to refrigerator to table, is wasted. We throw away food at the farm, at the supermarket, at home, at restaurants. This is not good for our personal finances. This is not ethical. This is not the KAIZEN™ way.
There are many such examples of time, money and resources that are not being respected, and instead are wasted. When food is cheap, we are made to believe that throwing it away is not only OK but also a more efficient way to live our lives. By believing this, we create a reality that makes it true. As customers, we allow the current wasteful food supply chain to exist. We accept it is part of our modern culture. In the same way, we allow and accept many wasteful practices within our organizations. Our mindsets create our habits and behaviors, and our habits and behaviors create the level of wastefulness in our reality. This is a cultural problem at the level of societies and organizations.
In the minds of some people KAIZEN™ has been relegated as just one of many tools of the Lean management system, however, KAIZEN™ has always been more than that. KAIZEN™ is the engine that gives life and energy to the organization by engaging the creativity of people who solve problems together. KAIZEN™ is change for good – change in a moral and virtuous direction. When we understand this, it requires that we look at the choices we make and ask, “Is this moral? Is it better for people?” When we as people ask these questions and take actions guided by the goodness of our hearts, we begin to create KAIZEN™ cultures.