Kaizen in Lean Manufacturing: Principles, Tools, and Success Stories

Discover Kaizen: Transform your business with continuous improvement. Revolutionizing manufacturing, Kaizen slashes process times from 5 to 1 hour. Learn how to harness its power in any industry for lasting success.
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Published on:
08 January 2024
Updated on:
28 February 2024

For any lean manufacturing practitioner, “Kaizen” is a familiar term. This Japanese philosophy has dramatically influenced manufacturing worldwide and is one of the core principles of lean manufacturing. Yet, what is Kaizen? And what makes it a guiding philosophy for lean manufacturers worldwide?

In this article, we will introduce you to what Kaizen is & its influence in manufacturing, the 10 Kaizen principles, Kaizen techniques, examples of successful Kaizen-implementing companies, and the Kaizen tools you will need to implement these principles and have continuous improvement in your organization.

At the end of this article, we also provide a free lean manufacturing e-book and a 5S Kaizen template PDF to help you get started.

What Is Kaizen?

In Japanese, Kaizen can be roughly translated as “continuous improvement.” It’s a Japanese concept that strives for non-stop improvement on all fronts, adopted by all employees of an organization.

Kaizen is one of the principles of lean manufacturing. First developed by Toyota, its effectiveness has made it prevalent among manufacturers worldwide. Lean manufacturing can be applied to any industry sector.

Manufacturing plants that apply lean manufacturing properly will reap dramatic efficiency improvements. For example, changing dies to make an aluminum alloy wheel generally takes 4-5 hours. Yet, Toyota Plants can cut this duration to under an hour.

Therefore, implementing lean manufacturing will conserve your organization’s valuable resources (particularly funds and time) by eliminating waste.

Lean manufacturing consists of 5 principles, which are:

  • Identifying What Your Customers Value
  • Value Stream Mapping
  • Creating a Lean Manufacturing Flow
  • Establishing a Pull System
  • Kaizen (Continuous Improvement)

Besides these 5 core principles, implementing lean manufacturing is supported by several other philosophies, such as ‘Jidoka’, ‘Heijunka’, and the ‘Just-in-Time Production System’. In addition, there are also lean manufacturing philosophies that came from outside Toyota, such as ‘First Time Right’.

Sometimes, the terms lean manufacturing and agile manufacturing are used interchangeably. Even though both terms sound similar to each other, they are, in fact, two separate doctrines with different characteristics. Check out our dedicated article to learn more about the 5 lean manufacturing principles.

A five-step lean manufacturing process is represented in an arrow-shaped flowchart from left to right. Steps include 1. Identifying Customer Value, 2. Value Stream Mapping, 3. Creating a Lean Manufacturing Flow, 4. Establishing a Pull System, and 5. Kaizen (Continuous Improvement).

What Is the Role of Kaizen in Lean Manufacturing?

Kaizen is the 5th principle in lean manufacturing. It’s also the final step in becoming a lean manufacturer – where employees are trained to have the Kaizen mentality. Employees who have embraced the Kaizen mentality can detect and remove waste independently – without any instruction from their supervisors.

The 8 forms of waste in lean manufacturing are:

  • Defective Products
  • Excessive Processing
  • Overproduction
  • Idle Resources
  • Having to Store Items
  • Unnecessary Motions
  • Transportation
  • Underutilized Human Resources
A grid of eight blue icons represents different types of waste in manufacturing. Each icon has a label: Defective Products, Excessive Processing, Overproduction, Idle Resources, Having to Store Items, Unnecessary Motions, Transportation, and Underutilized Human Resources.

The 10 Principles of Kaizen

Embodying the spirit of Kaizen among your employees takes a lot of time and effort. There are 10 principles that need to be implemented to achieve organization-wide Kaizen, which are:

A diagram titled

1. Continuous Improvement

The central principle of Kaizen is continuous improvement. A company can always improve every product and assembly process. One suitable method to achieve this is the “5 whys” method developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of the Toyota group.

Whenever there’s an issue, ask the question “Why?” at least 5 times. At the 5th “why”,  a solution or an improvement to a particular issue will generally become evident.

For example, you’re the manager of a bottled-milk-producing plant in Belgium, owned by Company A. One day, upper management complains that the company’s sales are lagging behind a competitor: Company B. Here’s how the 5 whys method will work:

Why 1:

You’ll ask the sales team of Company A: Why are our bottled milk products less competitive than Company B’s?

Your sales team conducts market research by doing customer satisfaction surveys, visiting supermarkets to check prices, and doing focus group discussion sessions to get external inputs. Later, your team found that the per liter cost of Company A’s bottled milk was more expensive than Company B’s in supermarkets.

Why 2:

Based on the finding above, you’ll ask the production team of Company A: Why is the per liter cost of our bottled milk more expensive than Company B’s?

The production team organizes an internal audit of your company’s entire production activity. This audit includes analyzing suppliers, inspecting your assembly line for possible inefficiencies, and re-considering your product distribution network.

You also hired an external consultant to perform a competitor analysis of Company B. Later, your company determined that the most significant factor making Company B’s milk more affordable was its lower production cost.

The milk industry is highly competitive, so Company A’s and B’s bottled milk products have similar profit margins. However, Company B’s lower production costs make their bottled milk products cheaper than yours.

Why 3:

In your company’s all-hands meeting, you’ll ask: Why is our bottled milk production cost higher than company B’s?

Based on previous audit findings and insights from your external consultant, you discover that Company B’s cost of acquiring unprocessed milk is lower than yours.

Why 4:

Backed by this information, at the following meeting, you’ll ask: Why is our company’s cost of acquiring raw milk higher than Company B’s?

After further consultation with your external consultant and reading Company B’s openly published investor relations report, you obtained valuable information. Company B sources its unprocessed milk from a large-industrial scale dairy farm in the Netherlands.

On the other hand, your company sources its unprocessed milk from traditional small-scale dairy farmers in Central France. Conventional dairy farms don’t have the same industrial technology or apply the latest techniques in their production compared to their industrial counterparts.

In addition, Central France is farther from Belgium than the Netherlands. Needing to bridge a longer distance means that your raw material transportation cost is also higher than Company B’s, further inflating your production cost.

Why 5:

Now, it’s obvious where the problem has been all along. You’ll ask your company’s partnership team: Why are we sourcing our unprocessed milk from conventional French suppliers that are not price competitive? Rather than from Company B’s industrial-scale Dutch supplier, which is better price-wise?

Your partnership team answers that your company signed a long-term contract with your current suppliers a few years ago and that they cannot withdraw without paying a hefty compensation fee. This contract expires within 2 years, and then you can look for a new supplier.

After asking the question “why” 5 times, you have finally found the root cause of your existing issue and its solution.

This example is an oversimplified illustration of how Sakichi Toyoda’s 5 whys improvement method works. In the real world, sometimes it takes more than 5 whys to find the root cause of a problem and its solution.

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2. Replace Old Machinery and Techniques

In the manufacturing sector, technology is the key to efficiency. Newer machinery and techniques allow you to produce more with fewer resources and take less time.

As a manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your plant keeps up with the latest technological developments. Keeping up means replacing old machinery and techniques with newer, better ones.

The 3D printer is a perfect example. Previously, machinery, electronics, and vehicle manufacturers had to buy numerous product components from various suppliers.

However, with 3D printing, they can design some components and print them in-house. In-house printing saves enormous costs for purchasing and transporting these components.

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3. Remove Waste

The main idea of lean manufacturing is to eliminate waste from your entire production process. Completely removing all 8 forms of waste is a challenging and time-consuming task.

Nonetheless, you still have to start somewhere. The 5S strategy can be a good starting point, as it’s relatively simple and will make your further transition into lean manufacturing an easier task. The 5S consists of:

Sort

Remove all unnecessary items from the shop floor. Only machinery and tools directly used in the production process should remain.

Only used items will consume necessary shop floor space. For example, large cleaning equipment, such as a floor scrubber, can be stored in a cleaning storage room instead of on the shop floor.

Set in Order

In addition to removing unused items from the shop floor, all remaining items should be well organized—place items where your shop floor workers can easily select, take, and return them.

Ordering your materials more efficiently is an excellent way to remove one of the 8 waste forms: unnecessary motions. Using a tool wall is a good option.

A neatly organized pegboard displaying various tools. On the shelf above, there are tapes, a brush, and containers. Hanging below are files, wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, and other hand tools. The setup is orderly, with tools arranged by type and size.

Shine

A shop floor must always be squeaky clean. Good hygiene will naturally have a positive impact on everyone’s health.

Furthermore, keeping your machinery and tools clean and well-maintained will likely prolong their lifespan. And, of course, a clean work environment is always more pleasant to work in.

Standardize

All new improvements and existing best practices must be documented and set as a standard operating procedure (SOP).  These SOPs can be forwarded to your shop floor employees as work instructions. With it, the standardization progress made will not be lost with time.

Sustain

After the improvements have been standardized, it’s time to look for further improvement possibilities. Kaizen is a never-ending process. There will always be room for future improvements, supported by newer industrial machinery and techniques.

Using a Kaizen board is suitable for tracking and planning future innovations. A Kaizen board visually shows improvement ideas, ongoing improvement activities, and improvements that have been successfully implemented.

A whiteboard layout divided into four sections. The top left section labeled

4. Prepare Your Employees

Kaizen requires the involvement of every single employee of your organization. As a manager, you are responsible for planning the transition into lean manufacturing.

However, every employee’s involvement is equally important. Hence, organizing short- and long-term Kaizen training programs is a must.

There are Kaizen certification programs that your employees can follow. For example, Toyota, the company credited with founding lean manufacturing, offers employee training programs in its Lean Academy.

In addition, there are good corporate habits that you can start implementing that support the spirit of Kaizen. For example, you can have a daily stand-up meeting where employees share with their peers which tasks they did yesterday, which tasks they will do today, and whether they see any obstacles to these tasks.

5. Maintain Organization Wide-Optimism

Optimism is a crucial element in Kaizen. It’s easier to solve problems and create innovations when your team members are optimistic they can succeed. As a manager, optimism starts with you. Having a positive attitude yourself will significantly impact your team members.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania has shown a positive correlation between a project manager’s level of optimism and a project’s success rate. Hence, maintaining overall team optimism is crucial.

Yet, it’s also important to balance optimism with an organization’s existing targets and resources. This Forbes article explains well how managers can simultaneously be optimists yet remain result-oriented.

6. See Problems As a Stepping Stone

Problems are there to be solved. In Kaizen, there’s a unique problem-resolution strategy: Kaizen Blitz. The term “blitz” means “lightning” in German. It obtains this name due to Kaizen Blitz’s way of work: a quick yet intensive problem-solving process.

A Kaizen Blitz consists of the following phases:

Step 1: Preparation

The first step involves identifying the problems that will be solved. This step includes:

  • Selecting the issues that will be addressed
  • Forming a Kaizen Blitz team and its structure
  • Identifying boundaries and setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) objectives/key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Requesting approval from the upper management

This phase typically takes 14-45 days to complete.

Step 2: Kaizen Event

After the preparation, the next step is to have a Kaizen Event. Yet What is a Kaizen Event? And what does it consist of?

In principle, a Kaizen Event is a series of events where you draft concrete plans along with your Kaizen team. Common actions in this phase are:

  • Orienting and informing your Kaizen Blitz team on the ongoing situation and your Kaizen Blitz plans
  • Having a brainstorming session with your Kaizen Blitz team on drafting the final plan before its execution
  • Presenting this final plan to the upper management and asking for their approval

This phase generally lasts 2-10 days.

Step 3: Implementation

Here, the plan drafted in the Kaizen Event phase is implemented in the real world. Besides the plan’s implementation, it’s also essential to:

  • Inform of all changes that have been made/will be made to the affected parties
  • Measuring the plan’s success or failure with the set objectives/KPIs
  • Reporting the Kaizen Blitz’s results to the upper management

There is no set timeframe for this phase, as it depends on the type of problem that will be solved.

A group of four people in white lab coats are seated around a table in a modern laboratory. They are engaged in a discussion, with one person holding a mechanical part. Various technical equipment and control panels are visible in the background. .

7. Obtain Consensus

As shown above, the Kaizen Blitz strategy requires total approval from upper management and intense coordination with the concerned parties. This is done to obtain complete consensus in the organization and ensure everyone is on board with your Kaizen Blitz plan.

With a complete consensus, you’re less likely to get pushback on your plan in the future. Moreover, you will gain valuable feedback before approval, which helps perfect your Kaizen Blitz plan.

8. Maximize Internal Resources

Kaizen aims to remove all forms of waste, including the waste of your organization’s financial resources. As a manager, your superiors always demand you to increase your plant’s output. Sometimes, purchasing new machinery or hiring new employees to satisfy their demands might be tempting.

However, it’s better to maximize internal resources before acquiring external ones. Before buying new production machinery, you should consult with your team: have we used our machinery to its maximum capacity? And before hiring new employees, it’s also necessary to reflect: have we fully maximized our existing employees’ talent and potential?

If the answer to these questions is no, then maximizing internal resources first is better. If there is no further room for enhancement with your existing internal resources, you can start acquiring external resources by purchasing new machinery or recruiting new employees.

9. Make Data-Driven Decisions

In Kaizen, all decisions must be data-driven. Decisions backed by facts and insights are more likely to succeed than those that aren’t. A good way of making good decisions is by implementing the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Cycle, which consists of the following:

Step 1: Plan

Before making any decision, everything must be planned. This includes:

  • Identifying the issues that will be solved or opportunities that will be sought after
  • Setting the KPIs and the timeline
  • Planning the actions that will be taken

Step 2: Do

In this step,  you test your plan on a small scale. Testing your plan before implementing it on a larger scale is crucial. There’s always a chance that your plan will fail and your forecast will be inaccurate. Therefore, it’s best to check that everything works to minimize risk in the “act” phase.

Step 3: Check

Based on the test results of the previous step, evaluate whether your plan has brought the impacts you expected. Match the existing KPIs with the targets and timeline that you’ve previously set. If necessary, make modifications to your plan based on this evaluation.

Step 4: Act

After planning, testing, evaluating, re-drafting, and re-testing your plan, it’s time to implement it in the real world.

Remember: PDCA is a cycle, not a one-way method.  After your plan has been put into motion in the real world, you will have to evaluate it at some point. Based on this evaluation, you must plan further improvements to take you to step 1 again.

PDCA is a self-repeating process that never ends. It matches well with Kaizen’s literal meaning in Japanese: continuous improvement.

A circular diagram divided into four colored quadrants with arrows. The blue quadrant labeled

10. Learn from Real-World Experiences

As the previous principles demonstrated, implementing Kaizen involves a lot of testing and seeking feedback from your team members. Kaizen advocates learning by doing, where you learn directly from the day-to-day operations of your shop floor.

One of the pillars of the legendary Toyota Production System (TPS) is “Genchi Genbutsu,” meaning “go and see for yourself” in Japanese. When there’s a problem, a manager should immediately see it firsthand.

The manager doesn’t necessarily have to be present at the site. However, the manager must fully understand the problem and know what’s happening on the site. This knowledge makes root cause analysis easier, and drafting solution plans will be faster and more precise.

Examples of Kaizen-Implementing Companies

Since its beginning in the mid-20th century, Toyota plants in Japan, Kaizen, and the overall idea of lean manufacturing have spread across the globe. Due to its universally accepted idea of constant improvement, Kaizen can be implemented in any industry.

Here are examples of successful Kaizen-implementing companies:

Toyota

Toyota is the pioneer of today’s modern-day lean manufacturing concept, thanks to its world-famous TPS system. Kaizen itself is one of the principles of the lean manufacturing doctrine.

TPS  was developed by Taiichi Ōhno- an industrial engineer from Toyota. In 1956, he visited the US and observed American auto manufacturers’ plants. He was also inspired by the then-new concept of supermarkets, where customers can just “pull” products from the shelves.

This experience led to his development of the TPS in the second half of the 20th century, allowing Toyota to mass-produce vehicles and sell them at an affordable cost. The results? Toyota’s dominance in the global auto industry. In 2022, Toyota was the world’s best-selling automotive manufacturer, a title that it defended for 3 consecutive years.

Implementing lean manufacturing that matches the TPS’ efficient production in your plant is never easy. The transition process can easily take years. This McKinsey article is a good reflection for managers planning to emulate Toyota-style lean manufacturing in their production site.

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Motorola

In the 1980s, many American manufacturers lost ground to their Japanese competitors. What was the main reason? Japanese manufacturers can produce goods for only a fraction of the price of made-in-USA goods.

Realizing that they could not beat Japanese manufacturers in price, Motorola aimed for quality perfection in the form of defect elimination. Bill Smith, a Motorola engineer, devised the Six Sigma method to eliminate product defects. This method boosts product quality and avoids costly recalls and reputational damage due to defective products.

The Six Sigma method aims to make all production and quality control processes as uniform as possible. This variation minimization allows easier product oversight. Additionally, all production processes must be quantitatively measured, granting easy performance tracking and improvement.

If properly implemented, the Six Sigma method allows a maximum defect rate of 3.4 defects per million occurrences – an extraordinarily low defect rate. This product defect elimination translated into massive cost savings for Motorola. From 1987 to 2005, Motorola saved more than USD 17 billion from defect-related expenditures.

Some might argue that the Six Sigma methodology is separate from the Kaizen philosophy. Nevertheless, instead of debating the Kaizen vs Six Sigma differences, applying and integrating both doctrines is better, as they can bring immense efficiency benefits to any organization.

Lockheed Martin

Due to its global success, the Kaizen philosophy even reached the military industry. Lockheed Martin, the aerospace giant that produces the world-famous F-16 fighter planes, also adopted Kaizen and lean manufacturing in its production activities.

Lockheed Martin started implementing it in the 1990’s. The results were mind-blowing. Between 1992 and 1997, there was a 38% reduction in manufacturing costs, a 50% reduction in inventory needs, and the average time from a plane’s order until its delivery was cut from 42 months to 21.5 months. 

This competitive advantage helped Lockheed Martin to win the Joint Strike Fighter development contract from the US government. This project, currently worth hundreds of billions of dollars, marks Lockheed Martin’s competitiveness in the military industry over its largest competitor, Boeing.

Azumuta’s Kaizen Tools

Did you know digital tools can help you implement Kaizen in your plant? Azumuta has a one-stop app for all your Kaizen needs. Check out how our modules can function as Kaizen tools and help you transition into a 100% Kaizen-compliant plant.

Digital Work Instructions

As a manager, it’s your responsibility to instruct your employees in this transition process. One of the starting points is removing waste through the 5S methodology on your shop floor:

  • Sort
  • Set in Order
  • Shine
  • Standardize
  • Sustain

With the Digital Work Instructions module, you can create easily understood work instructions in a matter of minutes – as it has a drag-and-drop interface. No prior graphic design or technical skills are needed.

Your work instructions can include images, videos, symbols, and even 3D models, making this the most visually appealing work instructions software on the market.

In addition, thanks to Azumuta, work instructions are no longer a one-way street. Your employees can also send messages to your device with images, perfect for rapid issue detection.

Thanks to our Digital Work Instructions module, everyone can understand and implement Kaizen – even those without a technical background.

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Audits & Digital Checklists

One of the steps in applying Kaizen is doing a Kaizen Blitz whenever there’s a problem. Doing a Kaizen Blitz can be excruciating due to its detailed steps and back-to-back coordination. That’s where our Audits & Digital Checklists module comes in.

Thanks to its drag-and-drop nature, this module allows you to create digital checklists in no time. With our digital checklists, you will never miss any step of the rigorous Kaizen Blitz process.

Besides executing the Kaizen Blitz, it’s equally important to check whether it has succeeded. You can do this by conducting an internal audit. And with the Audits & Digital Checklists module, an audit will be a walk in the park thanks to its many features.

With it, you can digitally plan, execute, and monitor your audits. You can even set up notification reminders, ensuring your audit will always be on track. What’s more, you can get an automatically generated audit result report. Hence, you no longer have to manually write your audit reports – saving hours of your precious time.

A screenshot of the Azumuta software interface, specifically the Planning - Audits section. The screen shows a Gantt chart with rows for different tasks and their progress. One task is highlighted, displaying a pop-up with task details such as due date, status, and related notes.

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Quality Management

One crucial part of Kaizen is making data-driven decisions. Yet, how can you source so much data from your plant? Do you have to check the meter readings of every single machine? Or ask for data updates from every single production station? Imagine the wasted hours every single day just for data collection.

Yet, with the Quality Management module, it doesn’t have to be like that. Your production machinery and peripherals can be digitally linked to Azumuta and send their data to your Azumuta-installed PC/tablet/smartphone.

This data will automatically be processed and shown in our data visualization dashboard. Therefore, you can easily monitor all data from your entire plant from the comfort of your own desk—no need to go back and forth between your office and the shop floor.

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Skill Matrix & Training

Planning Kaizen training programs for your employees will be a breeze thanks to the Skill Matrix & Training module. It allows you to plan short- and long-term training programs with built-in notifications to remind your employees when training is imminent.

Besides organizing training, don’t forget to keep track of your employees’ skill levels using our skill matrix. There is no need to draft the skill matrix from scratch; just use our visually intuitive templates that are automatically color-coded.

Thanks to the Skill Matrix & Training module, planning employee training and tracking their progress will only take minutes – instead of hours.

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Free Lean Manufacturing E-Book & 5S Audit Template

Besides the tools above, we also provide a lean manufacturing e-book and a 5S audit template that you can download for free.

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Witness how Azumuta’s modules have helped a client to reduce human error-related complaints by 60%, speed up employee training by 60%, and reduce the time needed to create and manage manufacturing-related work instructions by 50% – all in just 3 months of implementation.

Check out other success stories where Azumuta’s modules have drastically improved our clients’ production efficiency. Azumuta provides the most wide-reaching Kaizen software tools and solutions you can find in the market.

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