Article Revised: March 28, 2019
Continuous improvement means applying democratic principles to the running of day-to-day operation of a business. These ideas came from the experience of Japanese companies during the reconstruction of Japan after World War Two. Many in Japan credit the quick recovery and growth of Japanese industry during the 1950s and 1960s to the work of Dr. W.E Deming, an engineer and statistician who developed many processes of statistical quality control and project engineering. What Deming originated in Japan became known during the 1980s as Kaizen, translated from the Japanese as “good change.” Kaizen has been integrated into the control phase of the Six Sigma business operating system and training.
Key features of Kaizen are:
- Improvement can originate with small changes.
- Because change ideas come from the workers themselves, they are likely to be incremental and easy to implement.
- Small but regular improvement is unlikely to require major capital investment.
- Ideas that come from the talents of the existing workforce do not require expensive outside experts or consultants.
- Continuous improvement encourages employees to improve their own performance and to take responsibility for their work.
Focus on continuous improvement requires a change in management philosophy to recognize the observational skills and creativity of rank and file employees, not only to suggest change in the way thing work but also to try them out. The key principle of Kaizen is that employees engage in a full Plan-Do-Study-Adjust (PDSA) cycle. According to Deming’s teachings, the process of continuous improvement can not proceed until management is ready for this change. Deming cautioned that senior leaders are responsible for establishing a business culture in which employees can identify problems without fearing retaliation and can bring about positive changes.
Many organizations engaged in continuous change programs establish formal quality control circles among their employees. These groups regularly meet to make suggestions and observations that become part of implementation plans. The circles not only develop and test the plans but evaluate their effects and establish successful change into daily routine as well.
A successful example of Kaizen comes from the health care system. In this case, small change led to major efficiency. Nurses in the recovery room of a large hospital noticed that they had trouble evaluating their patients because the hospital located medical charts at the foot of the bed (as is traditional in most hospitals). When they changed the practice and located the charts at the heads of the beds, their patient evaluations became significantly faster and more accurate.
Thomas Pyzdek, author of The Six Sigma Handbook, is an expert in the field of continuous improvement.