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Continuous improvement culture: how to make Kaizen last

Yves Lebrasseur
Kaizen or continuous improvement culture

For the past four decades, Toyota has been recognized worldwide for the quality of its products and for coming out as the big winner in satisfaction surveys among car drivers. This multinational company's management philosophy can explain its success as it provides employees with the tools they need to improve their work continuously. Implementing such a system must encourage employees' commitment and creativity and allow for problems to be resolved as they arise

The goal: to achieve optimal quality.

Let's break down this process for implementing a sustainable system within your company.

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection. Quote by Mark TwainAmerican writer

What is continuous improvement (Kaizen)?

The English translation of Kaizen, a Japanese term originating from the fusion of the words kai ("change") and zen (" better"), is the continuous improvement that relies on small concrete actions that are simple and inexpensive.

Also considered a philosophy, Kaizen requires a commitment from all parties. Regardless of their job, each employee is invited to reflect on their work environment and come up with constructive suggestions relating to productivity.

The color-coded systems used for managing paper files are an excellent example of continuous improvement that is well established in most organizations. This efficient, zero-cost filing method does minimize wasted time.


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The key factors of Kaizen

To ensure this effort is successful, all stakeholders must be open-minded and adopt a positive attitude:

  • Challenge current practices instead of searching for excuses or culprits for problems.
  • Consider all suggestions for improvement, making sure that they are feasible.
  • Focus on results and don't get hung up on possible obstacles.
  • Find solutions without looking for perfection.
  • Involve at least one participant from each team connected to the problem.

Lean and 5S: two tried-and-true methods

Lean Manufacturing refers to a management and work-organization system that improves performance via training for everyone.

The two main objectives of this method are customer satisfaction (revenue) and the success of each employee (engagement and commitment). In a nutshell: Lean management eliminates unnecessary waste.

Infographics | Lean and 5S: 2 tried and true methods for continuous improvement

The 5S method is an excellent complement to Lean because it aims to better structure the company's operations to gain efficiency. Material losses and accident risk significantly decline by reducing waste and workplace disorganization.

By waste, we are referring to:

  • Overproduction;
  • Waiting;
  • Unnecessary transport and motion;
  • Excessive or improper processing;
  • Surplus inventory;
  • Defects;
  • Untapped employee creativity.

The idea behind 5S involves maintaining an efficient workspace that regulates itself through procedures and visual instructions.

The 5S implementation allows employees to identify unnecessary elements and promotes regular executive decision-making.


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Why invest in continuous improvement?

In management, encountering a problem is not considered a failure. On the contrary! It is, instead, an opportunity to improve.

With this in mind, becoming aware of an issue and finding a solution becomes a learning experience that creates value for the entire company.

With continuous improvement, everyone's responsibility, regardless of status or hierarchy, is to spot progress opportunities. At its core, this is what makes Toyota the powerhouse it is! Each team member contributes to the business’s success by identifying or recognizing improvement opportunities. In some cases, employees resolve the problem themselves. Otherwise, they turn to their manager to implement the solution.

Continuous improvement means getting suggestions and finding solutions to get better results. It's also about improving production quality, increasing productivity, and optimizing health and safety.

Important point: The company must create a structure capable of responding quickly to employee suggestions to avoid losing motivation and commitment. Continuous improvement also requires a good understanding of the issues on the part of employees so that the solutions remain realistic.

Continuous Improvement | Each team member contributes to the business' success by identifying or regognizing improvement opportunities


How to establish a culture of continuous improvement?

Creating a culture of continuous improvement requires a well-structured corporate culture for governance and leadership.

It's also crucial to encourage employees and involve them in the process through training. As a result, they become better at recognizing opportunities for improvement within the scope of their work.

In a continuous improvement culture, one of the manager's priorities is reinforcing this discipline in ALL employees. By communicating common and individual goals, everyone works towards a shared objective.


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Management Leadership

By establishing a suggestion program within the company, employees are encouraged to share their ideas and suggestions for improvement. Staff members are key players in this process’ success because they can quickly identify opportunities for improvement associated with their job.

The manager's role remains vital. They have to encourage suggestions and be proactive in implementing them. An actual follow-up of the ideas received becomes necessary to keep the troops motivated and engaged.

For example, if someone proposes a revolutionary solution costing millions of dollars, chances are it will not be retained. However, it's still important to explain why the proposed solution was refused and to engage in a discussion exploring less costly options.

Prioritizing Improvements

Before committing to a suggestion program, existing processes must be controlled and stable.

For example, an assembly plant experiencing production shutdowns due to supply issues must, first and foremost, resolve these issues to ensure operational stability.

In Lean lingo, the first step is to remove the boulders blocking productivity, and then tackle continuous improvement.


How do you sustain a culture of continuous improvement?

Improvements that are true, major, and lasting will lead to a change in culture. At Toyota, it's no longer a matter of having a suggestion program. All employees know they must contribute improvement ideas to ensure continuous optimal productivity. In short, continuous improvement must be a part of the business's DNA. This happens, notably, through constant training and using technological tools such as UTrakk.




Would you like to establish a culture of continuous improvement within your company? Contact our management coaches. They're specialists in operational performance, with the tools and knowledge necessary for your business to become more efficient and productive daily.




Yves Lebrasseur

Yves Lebrasseur

Senior Expert - Technical Processes Lecturer at the Engineering Faculty of the University of Sherbrooke, Yves mentors tomorrow's leaders as a supervisor of engineering management Master's degree projects and guides numerous organizations in optimizing their operations through Lean and Six Sigma processes.