The Kaizen Cycle is an approach to continuous improvement that has been used in many industries around the world. It was developed by Taiichi Ohno, a Japanese industrialist and engineer. Continuous improvement is the result of implementing Kaizen principles within your business while the applicable models and steps actually promote self-development.

This focus on individual progress enables businesses to empower employees who will then bring about overall business success. Thus the Kaizen cycle creates sustainable improvement with employee empowerment.

In this article, we’ll dive in to application of the Kaizen cycle from an employee standpoint.

6 Steps To Continuous Improvement

The Kaizen Cycle begins when an employee identifies a problem exists. The employee’s proximity to the problem uniquely qualifies them to devise a solution, implement it, test it, and iterate the solution until success is achieved. This employee requires the liberty to think strategically and take action without fear of being reprimanded if he or she seems momentarily off task. Good leaders and managers foster, support, and reward critical thinking. Their leadership results in successful companies.

It’s important to recognize the fortitude required for such a leadership style and the self-development necessary to reflect it. A leaders embodiment of a culture that empowers critical thinking will give way to employees believing their actions will be welcomed.

Summarized below are the 6 steps employees should be taught and coached to implement daily.

Step 1: Identify the problem. This means identifying what needs to be improved. In other words, identify the opportunity.
Step 2: Understand the root cause. What caused the problem? Why did it happen? How does it affect others?
Step 3: Decide how to fix it. What will work? What won’t?
Step 4: Implement the solution. Do something!
Step 5: Evaluate the results. Did it work? If not, why not?
Step 6: Repeat steps 1 through 5 until the desired result is achieved.

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Define the solution.

The first step in any Kaizen cycle is to define the problem. Employees need to understand exactly what’s wrong and how to resolve it. This may call for collaborative discussions with other employees. Perhaps the true root cause can not be discovered until all connected moving parts are identified and understood. Such discussions allow employees the opportunity to discover new knowledge that may be difficult to retain if they were not otherwise immediately affected.

“Process visibility reveals problems to anyone, not just managers. When something is amiss, workers can quickly determine the cause and take action. Process visibility also stimulates everyone to think of still more ways to improve it. Thus empowered by the method, workers learn to self manage processes and spontaneously improve them.” 

Jinichiro Nakane and Robert W. Hall. “Ohno’s Method” “Creating a survival work culture.” AME.org

The nature of problem discovery alludes to the fact that the root cause may derive from a standard practice. Standardized work should not be rigid and unchangeable. More often than not opportunity for improvement lies in practices already deemed efficient. Leadership will need to welcome new solutions even if the original process is statistically proven to work. Great men, popular belief, and scholars can be wrong.

“The development and documentation of standard work opens workers’ eyes to processes around them. Of course, deviations from standard work in use signal a process problem somewhere. But behaviorally, visibility is learning to expose processes and problems, and learning to share kaizen discoveries—-best methods—-freely. Rarely are problem exposure and methods sharing instinctive. A culture to do this must be developed by coaching and example.”

Jinichiro Nakane and Robert W. Hall. “Ohno’s Method” “Creating a survival work culture.” AME.org

The problem discovery stage can reveal multiple solutions for different areas within a work process. Employees can then invite others to way in on the solutions, pitch them to management, and begin implementation. Such employee led discoveries boost overall morale and breed increased productivity.

Create a plan.

Once they’ve identified the problem, employees need the freedom to develop a plan to solve it. This will involve gathering data and making decisions based on the results. Management should make an effort to show support of the solution plans while allowing the employees to take the lead. 

What if their proposed plan costs money? The odds are even if the financial cost is substantial the benefit will greatly outweigh the expense. Consider other expenses related to the problem along with the affect resulting increased productivity will have on the business as a whole. With these things in mind, grant a budget and spare no expense.

“Workers’ projects generally require minimal investment. Staff personnel have the technology and budget for major projects, but workers’ apparatus is simple and low-cost. The culture of do-it-yourself became the primary capital avoidance element of TPS.”

Jinichiro Nakane and Robert W. Hall. “Ohno’s Method” “Creating a survival work culture.” AME.org

Toyota coined the phrase, “No big gap between plan and action.” This means all plans should be grounded in reality. Employees can create plans based on their unique position to the action. However, there is opportunity here for management to coach employees to challenge themselves while remaining realistic in their goal setting.

Managers should also provide tools that support employees in reaching these goals. Software tools that show current and past data as well as facilitate action steps will be useful in their improvement pursuit. Providing such tools helps management demonstrate support of employee plans.

Execute the plan.

After employees have made and received approval for decisions, they’ll need to execute the plan. They’ll need the support of everyone, especially management.

Employees putting a plan into action for the first time can feel intimidated. The pressure to succeed may cause anxiety because they equate failure to a loss of employment. This type of environment will not breed success. Managers should make every effort to ensure them that their efforts will be recognized no matter the outcome.

Often the plans put in place to reach goals will fail a few times. This is when readiness can be coached and support re-enforced as plans are being iterated. The true goal is to build people, not necessarily to build better business processes. Coaching and training employees to think strategically, and to develop and execute improvement plans results in ongoing success.

“Development of first-line people to run and to improve processes autonomously creates a robust organization well beyond the shop floor. Military organizations call this readiness, a result of what everyone can do, not just a skilled few.”

Jinichiro Nakane and Robert W. Hall. “Ohno’s Method” “Creating a survival work culture.” AME.org

Employee empowerment is the “big picture” goal of sustainable improvement, not the other way around. Training employees to see problems, plan solutions, and execute improvement plans will always reap rewarding results. It is the success companies ultimately need.

We had the privilege of working with an awesome plant manager and team this week. It was inspiring watching Jeff Finch gather his team around a table and truly support them. He listened while they made goal improvement plans and supported them with an enthusiastic “Hell yeah!” Way to go, Jeff! You inspired this article.