Pat Wellington | Today's Manager Singapore Institute of Management
Published on 01/03/2018

The continuous improvement approach of the Kaizen management technique might seem common sense; regrettably it is not a common practice.


"Look, we have a suggestion box in the reception area but it remains empty and staff don’t seem to care about coming up with ideas for improvement!” If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this, or a variation on this theme from a chief executive officer (CEO) or manager, I would be a wealthy woman!

Doing research within organisations, it is possible to come up with a myriad of reasons for why staff are demotivated, but a key factor that comes through time and time again is the fact that the culture and values of the organisation does not encourage and support staff to be creative and come up with better ways of doing things, be it a task or the creation of a new system or procedure. The traditional Western approach prevails. What do we mean by this?

Linked to the aspects in the right column is the need for a long view focus on customer needs. All the activities within an organisation based on Kaizen values must be channelled in to providing greater customer satisfaction.

If Kaizen sounds to you more like a brand of air freshener than a management technique, let me explain briefly what it is. The term is Japanese and comprises two characters or elements: Kai meaning change and Zen means good. In a management sense, it is normally translated as ‘continuous improvement’. In practice, it refers to a step-by-step improvement in productivity and quality, practiced by staff at all levels.

Identification of issues/problem areas/places where there is room for improvement is key in a Kaizen environment. The concept was first introduced by Dr W Edwards Deming (an American statistician) and Mr Joseph Juran (quality consultant and engineer) in the 1950/1960s to revitalise Japanese car manufacturing. If and when a problem was identified by workers on the production line, the whole line or even the factory would be stopped. A detailed analysis would be undertaken to identify what had caused the problem and the outcome of the findings would be circulated to all—from the general manager to those on the production line. Now, with the concept being adopted not only in the manufacturing sector but also in all sectors of industry, problem identification and resolution is far more robust in the form of root cause analysis than in a traditional Western organisation.



This is where trust comes in to the equation. Issues/problems that occur should not be swept under the carpet with staff covering their own backs. Transparency/identification of the cause and effect, and learning for all is part of a continuous improvement environment.

Although Kaizen originally focused on products and services, the new generation of Kaizen in the 21st century stresses the importance of putting quality in people, both as individuals and teams. The Kaizen approach involves everyone in an organisation. It is not enough to train only front line/customer care staff, there needs to be leadership, a set of values, and commitment from the top of the company if attitudes and results are going to change.

So what can you do as an individual manager to create the environment for continuous improvement to work?

Fundamentally, people want to feel needed, supported, and valued as individuals. You cannot force people to come up with ideas for improvement. You need to create an environment where people have a sense of pride in their work, where they feel their ideas and suggestions are listened to, and they are given feedback not only for those ideas that are implemented, but also when they are not. Reward and recognition are obviously part of the equation, but allowing team members the right to take risks and experiment without fear of retribution if things go wrong is equally important. Ideally, you want your team to raise ideas on what needs to be improved, but if this is not forthcoming, get them to contribute by keeping it small and raising the question in your team meetings: “What small ideas do you have for improving for example: customer records, the layout of our office, the dispatch bay, cover of the phones during the lunch period, and so on…” Don’t frighten people in your team into thinking that they have to make a mind-blowing recommendation for changes to be made. However, repetition is vital. Bring up the topic during each weekly team meeting. Celebrate small ideas, wait for ideas to come even if this means a pause in your discussion. Make your team realise that they have two roles—doing their normal tasks and activities, and contributing improvement ideas. Be wary in your conversation of using the word ‘problem’. Keep it positive and use the term ‘opportunity for improvement’.

Enablement/empowerment is clearly also a key factor. Personal development and multi-skilling are other vital ingredients that make people feel that the organisation cares about them as individuals, and will in turn encourage them to want to contribute more.

All of this might seem common sense; regrettably it is not common practice.

This is all very well in theory, I hear you say, but how does it work in practice?

A hospital in Seattle in the United States, Virginia Mason Health System’s vision was to be a quality leader in healthcare. Having visited Toyota and Hitachi in Japan, they developed their own system entitled Virginia Mason Production system (VMPS). The objective in using this system was to find ways of streamlining repetitive and low touch aspects of delivery in order to release staff to spend more time talking with, listening to, and treating patients. Waste or anything that did not add value to the patient was eliminated from the process. For example, at one time in surgery, 10 different trays were used by 10 different physicians performing laparoscopy surgery. The new streamlined process standardised the trays, preparing only one. This saved money, eliminated redundant processes, and reduced human error.

Also as mentioned earlier when something goes wrong, staff are able to signal by E-mail or phone that a patient safety event has occurred in this environment, be it as severe as administering too high a dose of medication, or as trivial as spilling something on the floor that might cause someone to slip. Within the culture that developed, nurses were also able to report concerns over the operating rooms and have the situation reviewed and responded to. In the old hierarchical structure, concerns may not have been reported to management directly.

So how has the concept of Kaizen developed since its inception in the 1950s?




Ms Pat Wellington is an internationally-renowned management consultant and author. She has written various books including Kaizen Strategies for Customer Care and was a contributor to Kaizen Strategies for Improving Team Performance. She is also an Associate Trainer with SIM Professional Development.

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