What is Continuous Improvement (and is it Kaizen)?

Kaizen and Continuous Improvement are supply chain optimization processes.

Continuous Improvement
Continuous Improvement. Getty Images

In supply chain, Continuous Improvement is defined as your ongoing effort to improve your products, services, or processes.  You’re either after incremental improvement over time (usually for mature products, services or processes) or breakthrough improvement all at once (likely for newer products, services or processes).

Continuous Improvement can become a function itself (if your organization is large enough) with an overarching mission to optimize a variety of management systems (think in terms of business process management, quality management, project management, and program management).

Feedback from within the process (employee feedback) and from process customers (either internal or external) should be continuously evaluated against company goals and metrics.

The core principle of Continuous Improvement is the self-reflection of processes. (Feedback)

The purpose of Continuous Improvement is the identification, reduction, and elimination of suboptimal processes. (Efficiency)

Some successful Continuous Improvement implementations use Kaizen.  Key features of Kaizen include:

Improvements are based on many small changes rather than the radical changes

Improvement ideas come from the workers, so they’re less likely to be radically different, and therefore easier to implement

Small improvements are less likely to require major capital investment than major process changes

The ideas come from the talents of the existing workforce, as opposed to using expensive options like consultants

All employees should continually be seeking ways to improve their own performance

It helps to encourage workers to take ownership of their work, and to reinforce teamwork.

When launching Kaizen events and continuous improvement activities, keep in mind that the end goal is to develop repeatable, sustainable processes.

 How often have you been part of an initiative at your company in which a lot of effort (and money) is spent coming up with an idea that doesn't get implemented as part of the company's long term strategy?  

Many project and program managers will spend a great deal of energy getting management's buy-in.  Of course, without management's buy-in and support, a project will have a hard time getting launched.  A good project or program manager will garner management buy-in and support - and then design and execute the project.  Finishing a Kaizen or continuous improvement project is rare enough and an accomplishment that a good project or program manager can be proud of.

However, a great project or program manager not just completes the Kaizen or continuous improvement event - but makes it repeatable and sustainable.  And, while management buy-in and support is key to launching a project, employee belief in the project is necessary to make it a way of life once the project is complete.

In Kaizen, the fact that employees are given ownership of the process helps create an environment where sustainable and repeatable change can flourish.  One of the key concepts of Kaizen is employees are encouraged to seek ways to improve their performance and optimize workflow.

 In Kaizen, there is an understanding that employees will seek improvement and optimization, when encouraged to do so.  

Another key ingredient to ensuring improvements and optimization processes become part of a company's culture is to answer the employee's inevitable question, "What's in it for me?"  In Kaizen, the employees answer this question for themselves.  Their voices are heard and their ideas are analyzed and implemented.  

Long term continuous improvement success depends not only on management support, but the employees' belief in the process.  Kaizen is a great way to get you that result.