There are tons of different business process improvement techniques that companies have tried over the years. Many are IT focused, where the next powerful software promises higher efficiency and service. Once upon a time, “Quality Circles” were the rage, yet only a few companies managed to see the autonomous improvement they hoped for. When done correctly, meaning both strategy and execution have to be right, kaizen and kaizen events tends to be one of the most effective at delivering real results.

Some Definitions


 “Kaizen” is a Japanese term that loosely translates to mean continuous improvement. Kaizen describes a mindset of pursuing a number of small changes to processes that will add up to a major impact. The steady march of observing today’s process, having a clear picture of a better “future state”, and making numerous small changes will usually have a cumulative effect more dramatic and quickly than the months of planning and then implementing a big capital project.

“Kaizen Events” are organized short-duration projects designed to give a small team a very specific objective to tackle in just a few days. The team is typically guided by an outside expert who provides targeted training in a few key principles and tools the team will use to shape their ideas, and who guides the team’s efforts over the next few days.



The event is rather action-oriented with many ideas implemented as experiments to see what can actually happen when tried, versus a more traditional approach of planning and predicting the perfect solution before taking any action.

What it Means for Kaizen to be Done Correctly

There are Two Critical Elements to Using Kaizen Successfully: Strategy and Execution. Strategy First, then Kaizen

Kaizen events must be integrated within the larger improvement strategy and be part of the coordinated plan to achieve the strategic goals. kaizen won’t be the only method used, but where Kaizen events are selected as the improvement approach, it’s important that they directly tie back to the improvement strategy.

Each planned kaizen event has an objective that will put a building block in place or will solve a problem that is getting in the way of achieving strategic goals. Create the operational improvement plan to itemize clearly:

  • the building blocks required to provide a solid foundation
  • problems your team is experiencing today that get in the way of sustaining results.

These two itemized lists become your candidate projects, some of which are appropriate for Kaizen teams to tackle.

Sometimes, you will require a cross-functional team for a longer time period than is appropriate for a kaizen event. We typically launch “Breakthrough Teams” when this is the case. A breakthrough team will still schedule kaizen events into its improvement schedule – just recognize this scope is much larger than kaizen only.

How Well Kaizen is Executed Matters

One best practice for executing kaizen well is to create a cross-functional team structure that includes team members who do the job in this process being studied AND those from other areas. Choose a team leader who is accountable for the team achieving its goals, a facilitator to support the team by removing barriers and gaining management support, and an external expert to make sure the improvement principles and philosophies are understood and utilized correctly.


Above view of several business people planning work at round table



Another best practice is to create a structured calendar to ensure management and employee buy-in and support. During the 1-2 weeks prior to the event, the leader and facilitator prepare for success by studying the current situation, collecting data, communicating with process owners, and engaging the team members and management team. During the kaizen week, there is a kick off on day 1, a final presentation on the last day, and a management discussion to close out each day. After the event week, the team members commit to completing items that will ensure successful results and roll-out the main lessons learned.



This includes documenting new standard procedures, cross training employees (sometimes on multiple shifts or in virtual locations), creating metrics and visual tracking methods, and writing up a summary to share with other areas.

Avoid These Common Mistakes

There are some basic mistakes companies make that prevent Kaizen evens from helping your team achieve its full potential. Avoid these mistakes and you’ll be fine:

  1. Jumping into kaizen without having a strategy and improvement plan to know where Kaizen makes sense
  2. Thinking everything should be a kaizen – other methods might be better for your situation
  3. Launching a kaizen team without adequate preparation, which includes getting support from the process owners, alignment from the managers, involvement from the future team, and communicating well to all parties
  4. Forgetting to integrate guiding principles into the team’s process – e.g., if you’re implementing lean principles, make sure the team has a lean expert to provide guidance
  5. Skipping the formal kickoff, daily update, or final presentation – these critical meetings ensure the team and management sponsors are aligned
  6. Ignoring the need for the team to have dedicated time for follow-up

Kaizen Has Tons of Positive Benefits

Do kaizen right, and you’ll be rewarded with many positive benefits, including:

  • Results that sustain
  • Improved employee morale because they contributed to creating the new process
  • Resources who are trainied quickly to adopt new principles
  • Visual metrics so everyone can see the improved results

Kaizen is fun when you do it right. When you tie your kaizen activity into your strategy, execute well as described above, and avoid the mistakes listed your results will blow away your expectations and you will enjoy sustainable progress.