Kaizen, 改善 in Japanese business philosophy is synonymous with “continuous improvement”.
The actual translation is: “Improvement”. There is no reference to continuous or static. The word more accurately has the connotation of “disciplined improvement”, or “never perfect”, or “finished never is”.
改 (Kai, in Japanese, or gai in Chinese) is “change” or transformation. 善 (zen, in Japanese, or shan in Chinese) is "good" (different word than commonly used "zen"). The literal translation is" improvement".
Continuous improvement is a universal human desire. There is nothing specific Japanese about it. However, the Japanese business philosophy incorporated “discipline” in the process. That is perhaps the key ingredient that made it unique to Japan with its associated great success.
The concept is transcultural: In Chinese it's Gai shan, in Korean it's Ge sun, in Persian it's Behbood, in Spanish it's Mejora.
While in the West the predominant way of thinking may be described as: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", the Japanese Kaizen way is "improve it even if it ain't broke"
While innovation is radical, Kaizen is a continuous process in business. The key elements of Kaizen include teamwork, personal discipline, improved morale, quality groups, and suggestions for improvement.
The 5S framework involves 5 steps needed to create a clean and organized workplace: Seiri (Sort), Seiton (Arrange), Seiso (Clean), Seiketsu (Set a Standard), an Shitsuke (Sustain).
The Toyota model is fascinating. It consists of a balance between Kaizen and Jidoka (automation), and Heijunka and Just In Time principle.
Jidoka, is Providing machines and operators the ability to detect when an abnormal condition has occurred and immediately stop work. This enables operations to build in quality at each process and to separate men and machines for more efficient work. It highlights the causes of problems because work stops immediately when a problem first occurs. This leads to improvements in the processes that build in quality by eliminating the root causes of defects.
Just In Time (JIT) is a system of production that makes and delivers just what is needed, just when it is needed, and just in the amount needed. JIT relies on heijunka. Heijunka (pronounced hi-JUNE-kuh) is a Japanese word that means “leveling.” It is production leveling or production smoothing. When implemented correctly, heijunka elegantly – and without haste – helps organizations meet demand while reducing while reducing wastes in production and interpersonal processes.
Whether Kaizen is applied for business or personal improvement it tends to involve tools that contain cost and offer significant benefits.