The Concept of Kaizen: Everybody, Every Day, A Little Bit Better
I first encountered the concept of kaizen in the early 1980s through the teaching of Masaaki Imai and later through his book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. Imai explained that the Japanese word “kaizen” translated into English as “to change for the good” meaning improvement. He further explained that Japanese businesses were practicing kaizen daily, focusing on improving work processes and productivity. In other words, Imai told us that the secret of Japan’s success was continual improvement of all processes by everyone in the company.
Today, the concept of continuous improvement is well known in our industry and practiced to some extent by most companies. However, the key takeaway from Dr. Imai for me was not whether a business is improving, but the rate of improvement being achieved. Two companies can both be improving, but the one with the greater rate of improvement will eventually overtake the one with the slower rate as seen in Figure 1. Over time, the gap in performance between the two companies becomes substantial and directly affects competitiveness. The challenge is to find a way of accelerating your rate of improvement to capture the advantages in quality, time, and costs it brings.
The answer in part lies with how you go about your practice of kaizen. To be sure, kaizen events that last 2-5 days focused on a specific target area are powerful and can produce significant improvement. A problem companies face with this approach is the large demand on time and resources created by such long events. Since many companies do not have the resources to run large numbers of these projects, it’s not surprising that some printing companies have embraced an alternative approach, one where small improvements are made every day by every employee.
The concept of making small improvements is often overlooked and not seen as meaningful as the large, visible outcomes of multi-day kaizen events. However, improving by only 1% can be just as meaningful in the long run. As you and your processes improve a little each day, those improvements, if maintained, compound over time and eventually yield significant gains. As seen in Figure 2, if you make a 1% improvement to a process every day for a year, you will end up more than 37 times better by the time you are done. Small actions on the process don’t make much of a difference at the time, but thanks to compounding effect, they add up over the long-term.
This “1% solution” to the challenge of continuous improvement is perhaps the most powerful way yet to raise your company’s rate of improvement. By the way, this concept is beautifully addressed in the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. I highly recommend it.
2020 Continuous Improvement Conference
The 2020 Continuous Improvement Conference (April 5-8 in Columbus, Ohio) is the only industry event focused on helping printing and converting companies achieve operational excellence and Lean leadership. Attendees directly link reduced costs, lowered waste, and increased profit margins to ideas gained from conference presentations and networking. The conference is presented by PIA and SGIA, with association support from FPA, FTA, and TLMI. To learn more about the event, visit ci.printing.org. Click here to register to attend.
John is owner and principal of Compton & Associates, a consulting company dedicated to improving the people, processes, and profits of its clients. He is professor emeritus of the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he taught quality systems and process improvement while serving as director of the Center for Quality and Productivity in the Graphic Arts. Most recently, he served as vice president of quality and training at Vertis Communications and prior to that, he served as vice president of quality and organizational development at Fort Dearborn Company. John has authored and co-authored several books dealing with quality and productivity in the printing and imaging industry. He is a Master Lean/Six Sigma Black Belt and a senior member of the American Society for Quality. John has served as a consultant to the Continuous Improvement Conference since 2010.