Learn how to apply Kaizen habits to your product development

Thaisa Fernandes⚡
Mar 4 · 9 min read
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The first time I heard about Kaizen I was so impressed that I wanted to learn more about it and to find a way to incorporate Kaizen habits into my daily life — personal and professional. First, do you know what Kaizen means?

Kaizen (改善) is a Japanese word for “improvement.” In business, Kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees — from the CEO to the assembly line workers —

Kaizen is a systematic business improvement approach that leads companies to continuously superior results. It should definitely be a pillar of an organization’s long-term competitive strategy over the years.

Masaaki Imai is an organizational theorist and management consultant. 30 years ago, Masaaki wrote the book, , changed everything we knew about improvement, and showed the western world the notion of Kaizen.

Kaizen basically means improvement. Moreover, it 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 — .

What is Kaizen?

I would summarize the meaning of Kaizen as a way to create a culture where everyone on the team and in the organization is focused on continuous improvement and actively engaged and responsible for each improvement. It combines having the right employees in your company and creating an environment where employees want to create a powerful culture for improvement.

The notion of Kaizen was initially created as a manufacturing philosophy that creates a continuous improvement mindset as an action plan to reduce manufacturing waste, which is awesome. You can basically apply this philosophy to anything. As you can see, Kaizen is described as part action plan and part philosophy to be embraced by every employee in the organization.

As I mentioned, Kaizen can be applied to anything and any project. You can also combine it with other methodologies and frameworks, for example, Scrum, Kanban, and Squad. Regardless of methodology, Kaizen can be used successfully, and it can be a really good asset to achieve buy-in from management and stakeholders.

The Core of Kaizen YouTube video

What does it mean?

Kaizen was developed to lower defects, eliminate waste, boost productivity, and encourage worker purpose and accountability in the manufacturing sector. Kaizen is a compound of two Japanese words that together translate as “good change” or “improvement.” Through its association with lean methodology, Kaizen has come to mean “continuous improvement.”

It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best — W. Edwards Deming.

Originally from post World War II, Japanese quality circles were created and it was basically groups of workers focused on preventing defects and improving the quality at Toyota. The Kaizen concept was developed in part as a response to American productivity and management consultants such as W. Edwards Deming.

Kaizen plan of action

When Kaizen is a consistent and efficient sustained program, it’s really successful and can be applied as a plan of action to teach organizations and, most importantly, employees to think differently about their work.

It will teach them to think and evaluate especially their standardized work. A consistent application of this philosophy can lead your company to tremendous long-term and sustainable values.

The Kaizen action plan is about organizing events that are focused on improving specific parts of the company to involve employees at all levels. Here’s the plan of action:

  • Organize events focused on improving specific areas within the organization.
  • Team collaboration and involvement.
  • Employee autonomy.
  • Building a culture of high engagement.
  • Flow of suggesting and implementing improvements.
  • When implemented, it should be a natural way of thinking.
  • Notion of continuous improvement.

Kaizen events

Kaizen has some typical events, also known as PDCS, which is an for Plan, Do, Check, and Act, I’m sure you’ve heard about this before. It is also known as the Shewhart or Deming cycle. Plan involves developing a hypothesis. Do is running an experiment. Check is evaluating results. Act is related to refining your experiment and starting a new cycle. The Kaizen events can be something like this:

  • Set goals and provide any necessary documentation and background.
  • Review the organization/product current state and develop a plan for improvements.
  • Implement improvements identified.
  • Conduct another review to fix what it’s not working.
  • Report results and findings and determine any follow-up items that will need to be investigated.

Kaizen principles

There are five fundamental elements of Kaizen that are part of every Kaizen behavior and tool. When you’re implementing the Kaizen principle in your organization, you’ll need to make sure the team is implementing these fundamental principles. They’re fundamental to a continuous improvement culture, and they’ll also be a turning point in your organization and the quality, productivity, labor management relations progression.

Fundamental principles:

  1. Know your Customer.
  2. Let it Flow.
  3. Go to Gemba (which is a Japanese concept of continuous improvement designed for enhancing processes and reducing waste).
  4. Empower People.
  5. Be Transparent.

The approach

The approach is very simple and really similar to our favorite frameworks like Scrum and Kanban. The idea is basically making sure small and positive changes are being made and will lead to major improvements.

One of the most fascinating things to me is this idea of ensuring each employee has the Kaizen mindset embedded in themselves and because of that, they’ll feel inspired and engaged to propose and also implement changes within the organization.

With that you’ll have not only team collaboration and team building, you’ll also develop commitment and consensus. Because you’ll be making small changes constantly, you’ll have the opportunity to learn with each change and then validate all the learnings.

What makes it super different is this idea of shifting the mindset and creating a new organizational culture where small tweaks are made in the process, and they don’t only come from the top-down.

The core of Kaizen

  1. Teamwork.
  2. Personal discipline.
  3. Improved morale.
  4. Quality circles.
  5. Suggestions for improvement.

Ten principles of Kaizen

In my opinion, Kaizen is really a way of living and a mindset. Because of that, you need to make sure this concept is right for your organization and also your employees. You need to make sure you have the right person to promote Kaizen values within your organization. Kaizen has 10 principles that are commonly addressed as the core of the philosophy:

  1. Let go of assumptions.
  2. Be proactive about solving problems.
  3. Don’t accept the status quo.
  4. Let go of perfectionism and adopt an attitude of iterative, adaptive change.
  5. Look for solutions as you find mistakes.
  6. Create an environment in which everyone feels empowered to contribute.
  7. Don’t accept the obvious issue; instead, ask “why” five times to get to the root cause.
  8. Cull information and opinions from multiple people.
  9. Use creativity to find low-cost, small improvements.
  10. Never stop improving.

How does it work?

You might be thinking, this sounds great, but how can I implement it or even get buy-in in my company? Toyota is arguably the most-famous for its use of Kaizen. Kaizen is truly based on the belief that everything can be improved and nothing is status quo, and it’s extremely important that all employees understand and respect this principle.

Incorporating Kaizen involves:

  • Identifying issues and opportunities.
  • Creating solutions and implementing them.
  • Identifying new issues and also new opportunities.
  • Creating new solutions and implementing them again.
  • Repeating the cycle.

Cycle for continuous improvement

There are seven steps you can follow to create a cycle of continuous improvement based on the Kaizen concept and that will give you a systematic method for executing the concept:

  1. Get employees engaged and involved. Employees should feel like part of the process and collaborate to test new solutions.
  2. Find problems. Make sure all employees feel empowered to find and talk about problems. You can also brainstorm possible problems.
  3. Create a solution. Empower and encourage everyone in the organization to create new solutions to problems or even improve old ways of doing things.
  4. Test the solution. Implement the winning solution chosen by the team, and test it in a pilot program
  5. Measure and analyze the results. This is one of the most important parts. We need to be able to measure and analyze the results and validate our learnings and assumptions. This stage will also help to engage the team.
  6. Standardize. If the organization and employees are satisfied with the results, standardize them and make sure everyone in the team uses the new solution.
  7. Repeat. Don’t let the Kaizen habits die. You should make sure the employees and team will continue to iterate on that until it becomes a habit!

Kaizen 5S framework

There are a lot of frameworks and methodologies that can be used within Kaizen. For now, I’d like to focus on the 5S framework since it’s a critical part of the Kaizen system and helps to establish an ideal workplace. If you want to learn more about , , and check these articles too!

The 5S framework focus on creating an organization, cleanliness and visual order to improve profitability and efficiency in a standardized way. It’ll also improve the safety as long as the service or product. Below are the original Japanese 5Ses and their common English translations.

  • Seiri means sort (organize). This is similar to the spark joy idea of that states that you should possess only what has a purpose and sparks your joy. The whole goal is to have only what is necessary in the workplace and to remove the unnecessary things.
  • Seiton means set in order (create orderliness). Arrange things in a way that makes sense and also makes things easy to access.
  • Seiso means shine (cleanliness). You should keep the workspace clean, shiny, and tidy. Hello again, KonMari.
  • Seiketsu means standardize (standardized cleaning). You should create a process to systematize workplace cleaning best practices.
  • Shitsuke means sustain (discipline). It’s basically to keep going and repeating the same process and improving on an ongoing basis.

Advantages

  • Gradual improvement so the changes won’t seem so drastic and you can get management buy-in and team excitement.
  • Excellent for combating resistance and abandonment because the changes won’t happen all at once.
  • Inspection, inspection. It’s important to validate the learnings on a daily basis.
  • Helps in employee morale since they’ll feel part of the process and more valued.
  • Teamwork and collaboration will increase since employees will start to think beyond their roles and departments.
  • Mistakes and waste will be reduced.
  • Client focus will be increased as awareness of customer requirements is raised.
  • The team and company will have a structured system in place that will ensure continuous improvement.
  • Changes will be encouraged toward both short and long-term goal on a daily basis.
  • Encourages scrutiny of processes.

Disadvantages

  • The results are not going to be the same if the company is not open to changes and team collaboration.
  • The company will need to change its culture to create a receptive environment.
  • You’ll need to get buy-in from top-bottom management.
  • To apply Kaizen means that you need to change the current management system.
  • The concept can create an excitement in the beginning especially after validating some learning, but the continuous improvement needs to be reinforced until it becomes a habit and part of the organizational culture.

I hope you enjoyed and apply the Kaizen habits in your organization! I’d love to hear your thoughts about it and also your tips!



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Product Management 101

PM learnings in my journey at Silicon Valley

Thaisa Fernandes⚡

Written by

Product Manager and a perfectionist in recovery, willing to make more mistakes to validate my learnings.

Product Management 101

PM learnings in my journey at Silicon Valley