Lean management is an approach to running an organization that supports the concept of continuous improvement, a long-term approach to work that systematically seeks to achieve small, incremental changes in processes in order to improve efficiency and quality.

Lean management seeks to eliminate any waste of time, effort or money by identifying each step in a business process and then revising or cutting out steps that do not create value.

The lean management practice Kaizen is a tool that improves quality, productivity, safety and workplace culture. Kaizen may be applied in manufacturing and administration alike and focuses on small, daily changes that result in major improvements over time.

Kaizen first surfaced during the effort to rebuild Japan after World War II. At the time, several U.S. business consultants collaborated with Japanese companies to improve manufacturing.

Kaizen in JapaneseThe collaboration resulted in the development of several new management techniques, one of which was Kaizen. Kaizen comes from two Japanese words: Kai (improvement) and Zen (good). Over time, it became widely known as “continuous improvement.”

Unlike many business practices, Kaizen’s strength comes from requiring all workers – from the CEO to the shop floor assistant – to participate by making suggestions to improve the business.

The Dual Nature

Kaizen is part action plan and part philosophy:

  • As an action plan, Kaizen is about organizing events focused on improving specific areas within the company. These events involve teams of employees at all levels, with an especially strong emphasis on involving plant floor employees.
  • As a philosophy, Kaizen is about building a culture where all employees are actively engaged in suggesting and implementing improvements to the company. In truly lean companies, it becomes a natural way of thinking for both managers and plant floor employees.

Kaizen Action Plan

A typical Kaizen event goes something like this:

  • The PDCA CycleSet goals and provide any necessary background.
  • Review the current state and develop a plan for improvements.
  • Implement improvements.
  • Review and fix what doesn’t work.
  • Report results and determine any follow-up items.

This type of cycle is frequently referred to as PDCA which brings a scientific approach to making improvements:

  • PDCA ProcessPlan / Problem Finding (develop a hypothesis)
  • Do / Display (run experiment)
  • Check / Clear (evaluate results)
  • Act / Acknowledge (refine your experiment; then start a new cycle)

Kaizen Philosophy

Interestingly, Kaizen as an action plan is exactly what develops Kaizen as a philosophy. When Kaizen is applied as an action plan through a consistent and sustained program of successful Kaizen events, it teaches employees to think differently about their work.

In other words, consistent application of Kaizen as an action plan creates tremendous long-term value by developing the culture that is needed for truly effective continuous improvement.

“Pull your finger out and leave your footprint.”
Eric Roth

The 5S Methodology

The history of the 5S methodology was most likely born from Toyota in Japan after World War II and has been called TPS (Toyota Production System), the original JIT (just-in-time manufacturing).

The 5S MethodologyHowever, some believe the method may origin back as far as the 16th Century and Venice shipbuilders.

The 5S methodology as a today’s part of Kaizen may therefore be a lot older than other sets of lean techniques and tools for process improvement such as Six Sigma.

Six Sigma which is rather based upon mathematics than philosophy and often implemented on a project basis was introduced by engineer Bill Smith while working at Motorola in 1986 and Jack Welch made it central to his business strategy at General Electric in 1995.

Here is a breakdown of each “S“:


Widely applied as part of Kaizen is not only the 5S methodology but also the logistic control system KANBAN which may constitute an important part of the supply chain management.

→ Learn more about KANBAN in the project SCM & Co.

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