Kaizen, or how to involve employees in the development of the company?

Have you ever wondered how overcome employee resistance Before changes in the company? Those who do not have a say in the decisions they make will treat with hostility anything that disrupts the status quo. The reason is not too complicated; any big change in the workplace means a period of uncertainty and stress. What if, instead of turning everything upside down, we divided the changes into baby steps And involve every employee in them? I will show you how, with the help of management philosophy Kaizen make employees not only accept change, but also initiate it.

What is Kaizen?

Management philosophy Kaizen, developed in Japan rebuilding its economy after World War II. In the West it was spread in the 1980s by Masaaki Imai, founder of the Kaizen Institute. The word itself can be translated from Japanese as "good change". Its most important assumptions are the continuous improvement and the small steps already mentioned. Kaizen was originally used in manufacturing companies such as Toyota to maintain top quality and improve operations. However, the method is very versatile and I'm going to show how to put it into practice in any company.

Why do employees resist change?

While we're at it, let's get back to the original question; how do we streamline operations at the company without scaring employees, or even with help from them? In the introduction I outlined the reason why employees tend to defend the old order. How can Kaizen help us change this?

To answer this question, it is worth considering how changes are carried out in Western companies. Well, they usually bear the hallmarks of innovation, and therefore breakthroughs. This is an approach that differs significantly from the Japanese philosophy, and here are the basic differences:

  1. In Kaizen, the initiator of change is the team. This characteristic is consistent with Eastern culture, which is collectivist, meaning that people there focus more on cooperation and relationships with other people than on personal success. Western culture, on the other hand, is individualistic, meaning it focuses on individual achievement. This is not just a theory; all the Chinese I have had the pleasure of talking to who have studied, or worked, in the West have noted that Europeans and Americans were distinguished by their self-confidence in expressing their own opinions and their relative selfishness. It stems from our culture that innovations are usually invented and implemented by individuals, without the participation of the rest of the organization. It is obvious that the more people are involved in initiating a change, the greater the acceptance will be for it.
  2. Kaizen improves existing technology. Innovation introduces an entirely new system. Of course, sometimes such a change is inevitable, but continuous improvement of existing technology can have a similar effect in the long term and be sufficient. The undoubted advantage of the latter is, of course, low cost.
  3. Kaizen involves employees. Innovation is usually the creation of experts, or executives. These people, sitting in offices all day, are often disconnected from the place where added value is actually created and where rank-and-file employees are engaged in operational activities, a place called "Gemba" in Japanese. Because of this, their ideas are based on theories and predictions, while they don't always match the actual needs of the company. By involving employees, the solutions are the result of common-sense observations by people who know best what hinders their work and what would allow them to improve their effectiveness.

  4. Kaizen is about taking small steps, one by one. If we see that some areas of our business need to be changed, we can approach it in two ways. If we plan a sudden and large move to eliminate all the imperfections at once, we will create confusion and make employees less productive as they will need time to adjust to the new realities. However, many changes can be broken down into small steps and deal with small improvements one by one, which will be much more bearable and swallowable. Of course, there are key issues that require a revolution, but it is often enough to refine the details to significantly improve performance.

As you can see, innovations are much more difficult to carry out than Kaizen. Moreover, they are often not needed because the company's problem lies in the unnoticed details that add up to higher costs and lower efficiency. Now that we know why big change can be a problem, and we know some of the benefits of using Kaizen, let's consider how to break down change into small steps.

How to put Kaizen into practice?

There are quite a number of practical methods for using the potential of Kaizen philosophy to improve your business. Each of them, although derived from manufacturing companies, can be successfully applied to any company.

Employee involvement

First, let's not try to guess on our own what ails our company. Instead, let's let the people who directly account for the success of our business - the rank-and-file employees - diagnose the situation. The following two techniques can help:

  • Hoshin Kanri, is the basis for applying Kaizen in a company. It involves aligning company policy with lower-level subordinates. Thus, management's strategy should be consulted with department heads, departmental policies with departmental managers, and so on until we get to the rank-and-file employees. Of course, the idea is not to have subordinates create the company's strategy themselves, but to create a list of goals with which everyone will identify. What does this give us? Well, involving lower-ranking individuals in the creation of the strategy makes them more likely to accept the tasks set before them. Without feeling that something is being imposed on them, they will identify with the actions of the entire organization. In addition, communication between levels of the organizational hierarchy will improve, and there will be confidence that everyone in the company is heading in the same direction. In order to put such a system into practice, it is first necessary to deal with the fear of managers to delegate part of the authority to their subordinates. In addition, employees often don't want to be actively involved in the company, believing that their job is just to get the job done and leave at a certain time. However, it is worthwhile to ensure integration, because an engaged employee who identifies the organization's goals with his or her own is priceless. Kaizen must become part of the culture of the entire organization.

  • The Suggestion System also aims to involve employees in developing the company. Every employee is encouraged to submit ideas for improvement whenever, while working, he or she notices that something is bothering him or her, or something can be improved. Such suggestions are very valuable, because rank-and-file employees, being in the "center of things" all the time, know better than managers what needs attention. Of course, they need to be motivated to want to get involved in improving the company's work. For this purpose, you can create so-called "quality circles," i.e. teams of employees that meet to discuss the situation in the company. It is worth awarding incentive points to those who come up with an initiative that proves useful. Such a solution works, for example, in our company, ConQuest Consulting, and contributes to greater involvement of all employees. In Japan, it is common for individual company departments to compete with each other in the number of proposals submitted. However, don't have too high expectations of the ideas presented; probably employees won't show off achievements on the scale of discovering America, nevertheless, all the details when added up can translate into better results for the company. To convince you that this method works, let me cite a statistic; at Toyota, 1.5 million proposals are submitted annually, 95% of which are implemented and contribute to better company performance.

Eliminate activities that do not generate profits.

The above techniques are quintessentially Kaizen, so to speak, and introducing them alone should yield great results; employees will become involved in improving the company, and initiatives will come from the bottom up, instead of being pushed by management. However, you're probably curious about which areas of a company's operations can most easily be improved through Kaizen. It would probably be hard to make a fusion using the small steps method, while it does an excellent job of getting rid of waste, streamlining operations and making jobs more efficient. Let's take a look at some selected concepts related to Kaizen.

  • Muda in Japanese means waste, and the term has an exceptionally deep meaning, as within the Kaizen philosophy we will use it to describe anything that does not provide value to customers. Many aspects of a company's operations generate costs without contributing to the value of the final product or service. Traditionally, seven areas were assumed in which the said "muda" could occur:

    • Transportation: there are several examples under this term. It will be a waste of time and fuel to bring materials from a warehouse that is too far away. In an improperly designed office, employees may unnecessarily carry documents to a closet located in another room. In addition, it is easy to damage products during transportation, a cost that could have been avoided.

    • Warehousing: materials that are not currently being used generate costs such as paying for warehouse space, electricity bills and the like. Of course, a certain level of inventory is needed to avoid unnecessary interruptions in production, but this can be reduced by using methods such as just-in-time involving perfect synchronization with suppliers, for example.

    • Unnecessary movement: unnecessary movement of employees can result, for example, from clutter in the office, when finding an important tool or document requires searching through different rooms. One way to prevent this is through the 5S technique, which I will explain later.

    • Waiting: all moments when employees are idle are a loss for the company. The inability to do work may be due to a lack of tools or materials, for example; fear of such a situation often leads to the aforementioned over-stocking. In the office, you may have to wait for some message, or for approval from a superior, and in this case it is worthwhile to improve communication in the company, and fight possible bureaucracy.

    • Redundant processing: when designing a product or service, it is worth considering whether all the elements in the package provide value to the customer. If not, perhaps they would pay as much if the product were simpler and the service less comprehensive? This would certainly reduce the company's costs.

    • Overproduction: specific to manufacturing companies, overestimation of demand can mean that products not sold immediately will have to be either stored (the loss already described) or even destroyed if they turn out to be obsolete after a while.

    • Corrections: both those that must be made in the production process if a defect occurs at some stage, as well as returns and complaints from customers. Japanese automobile companies placed considerable emphasis on quality when they began exporting to the United States, since handling complaints from overseas, transporting parts and the like would significantly increase costs. At ConQuest Consulting, the aforementioned incentive points are also received when a job does not need to be corrected, which prompts everyone to care about quality and prevents losses.

In addition to the areas mentioned, other areas have been developed that are more suitable for service companies, which have also begun to apply Kaizen. Some of these include unclear information, unnecessary documents, office spam and prolonged meetings.

  • "5 Why" is looking for the deepest cause of a given problem. It involves getting employees to think analytically, figuratively by asking the question "why?" at least five times. This approach avoids the risk of misdiagnosing a problem. A technique that can help with this is the Ishikawa diagram, where you graphically determine the potential causes of a problem, then the causes of the causes, and so on, and then select the ones most responsible for bad results.

  • 5S - refers to neatness at the workplace, the place Kaizen places the most emphasis on (the aforementioned Gemba). The method is made up of five Japanese words, denoting successive actions to be taken to improve the efficiency of daily activities:

    • Seiri, or selection. Remove from the workplace all unnecessary tools and objects whose presence is distracting.

    • Seiton, or systematics. Find the right place for each item so that it is easy to find and reach for it quickly. Optimally, they should also be arranged according to the order in which the work is done and, of course, put away after use.

    • Seiso, or cleaning. Neatness is important in Japanese companies, in addition, this step makes it possible, by the way, to detect possible defects in equipment.

    • Seiketsu, or standardization. For example, it allows one employee to work at any other position. It probably wouldn't work in a Western office, where everyone likes to surround themselves with private items.

    • Shitsuke, or self-discipline in maintaining previous activities. In order to motivate employees to take care of the 5S standards, it is necessary to evaluate them and possibly use an incentive system.

Of course, the methods presented are not all related to Kaizen. Each of them presents some kind of small changes that can be made with the cooperation of employees. They lead to improved quality and lower costs, and therefore to greater competitiveness. At the same time, in most cases, they do not require revolutionizing the company, just improving certain processes.

Why implement Kaizen in your company?

Kaizen is the answer to the question posed in the title. Employees involved in creating company policy and improving the company's day-to-day operations are willing to accept change. In a situation where they themselves were the initiators they even feel pride. Importantly, rank-and-file employees feel responsible for the decisions made, which motivates them to work and increases their identification with the company.

Note that a company that uses Kaizen becomes more flexible. Traditional planning and decision-making is based on forecasts and predictions, which may not always come true. Here, by contrast, there is a constant response to a changing situation; rank-and-file employees are the quickest to notice changes affecting their work.

Kaizen is an extremely versatile system, and while it was originally used for quality management in heavy industry companies, it is also sometimes used in service companies (Kaizen Institute has worked with many banks), and can even be successfully used to improve private life. Almost any goal can be broken down into small elements, the gradual introduction of which is less painful than a one-time revolution. Moreover, a culture of attention to detail and the pursuit of perfection allows for a lasting competitive advantage.

The list of steps to take in implementing Kaizen looks like this:

  • Give employees the feeling that they contribute to the organization.

  • Encourage employees to come up with ideas for improvements and reward them for them.

  • Instill a culture of continuous improvement.

  • Focus on improving quality and eliminating waste.

  • Get to the real causes of the problem.

  • If you find that a big change is inevitable, try to break it down into small steps and introduce it gradually.

In the article, I described only some of the techniques used in Kaizen. I will soon provide instruction on the use of many other methods used in Japanese, and other, companies to improve quality and streamline the work of the entire organization.

Andrew Surzyn

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