Kaizen is simply the Japanese word for improvement. It is composed of two kanji, 'change' and 'better'. Strictly speaking,  kanji are ideograms rather than 'words', so if we simply translate 'kaizen' as 'improvement' some of the ideas get lost. 
Kaizen was introduced to the UK when NMUK (Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK) was established in the mid eighties. Initial recruits had been to Japan to learn their jobs, and they found that as their skills improved their hosts acknowledged their efforts with smiles and comments of 'Kaizen!' They came to learn that kaizen was not simply something required to reach an acceptable level of performance in the workplace, but something that was expected to keep on applying in order to make things better and better.
The Japanese view was that improvement in the workplace was not simply the responsibility of  specialists or engineers, but that everybody had a duty to improve for the benefit of themselves, their colleagues and the company as a whole. Indeed, kaizen was deemed so important that it was attributed as the main reason for Japan's competitive success!             

On successive visits to Japan, NMUK personnel saw how manufacturing performance just kept on improving. They noted several aspects to spirit of kaizen: 

Masaaki Imai, originally of the Cambridge Corporation, used to arrange visits for Japanese industrialists to learn what they could in the USA. By the late seventies he noticed that the trend was reversing - Americans were wanting to know how the Japanese were becoming so successful! He subsequently wrote 'Kaizen, the Key to Japan's Competitive Success' and established the Kaizen Institute.

'Making a plan - and sticking to it',       'Taking lots of small steps, one at a time, rather than shooting for the moon',          'Paying attention to detail',         'Making use of data and statistics'. 


Kaizen was undertaken in three main ways in the workplace (Japanese: 'genba' or 'gemba'). There was:
  • Individual kaizen - not simply 'suggestions' (for other people to implement) but actually making the improvement, which may be applied to any aspect of the working day
  • Quality Control Circles - where groups of like minded people met regularly to address particular issues. QCCs remain very big in Japan, where such activity (which is not restricted to quality alone) is almost regarded as a team sport with grand presentations and award ceremonies
  • Workshop activity - akin to QCCs but short, sharp and concentrated over a couple of days
NMUK personnel joined in these activities and found it refreshing in the way people were empowered to 'have a go' - and were generally enthusiastic in doing so. 

At home, the reaction in previous companies would have typically have been 'Improvement's not my job', 'The rate has been fixed -  improvement is for my personal benefit', or 'I daren't try anything new in case it fails', 'We'll have the Union on you!'

As soon as NMUK was up and running, there was an enthusiasm for establishing QCC activity. However - it was pointed out that the first priority was to actually make and sell motor cars - kaizen could wait! 

This was a significant point: establish standards first - then improve on them! This lesson continues to be overlooked - people are anxious to improve, yet they often have no established foundations to build upon!


After a couple of years, NMUK staff had  been able to understand, through doing for themselves, what elements of Japanese and western methods worked best. They had established their own standard ways of doing things. The time had come for improvement groups!

'Quality Circles' had been introduced to the UK in the early eighties, with generally disappointing results. Rather than simply adopt QCCs at NMUK, the topic was researched in order to understand the key elements for success, and reasons for failure. It was found that NMUK had already established many of the pre-requisites, but there were some things that needed to be established or re-enforced.

  • The term 'Kaizen Teams' was adopted. Kaizen, as a foreign word, could mean anything we wanted it to mean. It had no baggage of pre-association with anything else, for good or ill.
  • Teams are not simply generated by bringing a group of people together: there are several features of effective teams which need to be recognised and worked on
  • Resources were required - time, money and training. These were regarded as an investment which subsequently paid dividends
  • Team members needed to understand various tools and techniques which would enable them to base their actions on data, rather than simply trial and error and hoping for the best.
  • A process was required - a formal series of steps that would provide a pattern for team activity
Each of these steps had appropriate tools and/or techniques in order to provide a clear framework for activity. Teams could chose whether or not they should use them, as appropriate to the activity.  





4. PLAN ACTIVITY The steps were based on the never-ending 'PDCA' cycle

Kaizen activities and a 'kaizen attitude' have had a significant part to play in the way NMUK conducts it's business. Kaizen is an essential element of genba kanri which has, in turn, been the key to NMUK becoming by far the most productive automotive plant in Europe.

It may be tempting to summarise kaizen as 'continuous improvement' - but to do so may be to dismiss much of the essence of kaizen. Key features to remember are:

  • There must be an established, agreed, respected standard for the way things currently are: if we don't know where we are now, how will we know when we have improved?
  • There must be refusal to accept the status quo as the best way of doing the job: there is always a better way, no matter how good we are!
  • 'God helps him who helps himself' - kaizen is about making better use of existing physical and human resources, not expecting others to do it for you, or buying solutions.
  • Kaizen requires resources - many of them intangible. They include a supportive corporate culture and the opportunity to turn ideas into reality.

...one final Japanese word: Gambatte! - go for it!


GENBA KANRI: The web site dedicated to improving manufacturing competitiveness