Kaizen (continuous improvement) for small- and medium-sized companies

by Jim Black, CIRAS


Kaizen means continuous improvement. To be most effective, Kaizen should involve all company employees. Continuous improvement can be implemented as a program, but it yields its greatest rewards to companies that adopt it as philosophy. In his 1986 book Kaizen, the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, Masaaki Imai1 said:

"If asked to name the most important difference between Japanese and Western management concepts, I would unhesitatingly say, ‘Japanese Kaizen and its process-oriented way of thinking versus the West’s innovation and results-oriented thinking’." (See Exhibit 1.)

In 1993, several Frigidaire Company employees were selected to lead the introduction of Kaizen throughout the company. As one of those selected, I participated in training provided by Kaizen Institute of America2. Its process for teaching Kaizen comprised two days of classroom training and three days of team application in the team’s own work area. Teams of eight employees were selected, typically including four employees from the process to be improved, one from the previous process, one from the next process, and two support employees (e.g., engineering, purchasing, accounting, maintenance, quality, or supervision).

Four to five of these teams were dedicated to Kaizen for the entire week, and they were provided extensive support. If the team identified the need to rearrange the workspace, and this involved electrical, air, water, or gas drops, work orders were prepared and the work completed by the night shift maintenance employees. As a result of the intense focus of resources, teams not only identified numerous improvement ideas, but also implemented many of them during that same week. Significant reductions in non-value adding work, floor space requirements, cycle time, and work-in-process (WIP) inventory were accomplished. Process documentation was developed and product quality improved. Some ideas failed and had to be rethought before a workable approach was identified.

For large companies and plants, this process is very effective. Kaizen Institute of America has consultants with extensive experience to lead the process, and I would recommend them.


CIRAS serves the 4,500+ manufacturing plants in Iowa. Most of these plants are small to medium sized, employing fewer than 500 employees. Often smaller plants like these cannot dedicate even one team of eight employees for a full week of Kaizen, even though Kaizen principles are as effective in small companies as they are in large ones. To make Kaizen work for our client companies, I had to continuously improve my own process. After discussions with several companies, I condensed the process to two days of team meeting time (sometimes separated by several weeks of implementation time). The case studies summarized below demonstrate this abbreviated process. Kaizen works equally well in office (administrative procedures) and shop (production processes) settings. Continuous improvement is totally compatible with participative management, total quality management (TQM), teams, empowerment, and other management philosophies that involve all employees in making improvements. Management teams with these philosophies recognize that if employees are given clear expectations and time to work as teams, they will be productive with the time and tools available to them. Conversely, Kaizen would not do well in an autocratic management environment.


Now the process, as adapted for small- to medium-sized companies, comprises as little as four half-day sessions. Some companies choose to devote three to five days to the Kaizen workshop. Details follow on each of the tools listed here for the four-session workshop.

Session 1

Illustrate and discuss Kaizen vs. Innovation (Exhibit 1), Super-Ordinate Principles (Exhibit 2), Seven Key Concepts (Exhibit 3), and Problem Solving Tools (Exhibit 4); then go to the work area to apply Key Concepts and write down improvement ideas.

Session 2

Brainstorm ideas from the Key Concepts, vote on priority of ideas under each concept, develop an action plan for the Key Concept ideas, discuss the 5-S process (Exhibit 5), and develop a flow chart for the process.

Session 3

Review progress on the first action plan, illustrate and discuss the Seven Deadly Wastes (Exhibit 6), go to the work area to apply the Seven Deadly Wastes and write down improvement ideas; then brainstorm ideas from the Seven Deadly Wastes.

Session 4

Vote on the priority of ideas under each waste, develop an action plan for the Seven Deadly Waste ideas, illustrate and discuss Standardized Work (Exhibit7); then review and improve the flow chart, document improvements, present the project to management, and recognize team accomplishments.

Next one to six months

The team meets weekly to review its implementation progress, identify/overcome barriers, celebrate successes, and document its processes. The team applies the 5-S process in its work area and review the flow chart, looking for ways to eliminate non-value adding tasks.


An alternate approach is based on a one-week Kaizen event, often called a "blitz." The implication ‘fast." This approach works especially well in larger companies. Often small companies lack the resources to utilize this approach. For example, to be able to rearrange equipment overnight, some dedicated resources (like maintenance and material handling) are needed.


Faced with rapid growth, Audubon Media Corporation, a printer of cookbooks ranging from small family cookbook orders up to nationally marketed cookbooks, recognized the need for improvements in processes and documentation. Keith McGlade, president and owner, wanted to see more team-oriented practices implemented to involve all employees in making needed improvements. Keith asked me to evaluate the situation and recommend a plan to improve throughput of their plant. Over a two-year period, I facilitated five Kaizen teams for Audubon Media.

The first project was representative of the Kaizen process. Working in their bindery and press departments, the team generated over 70 improvement ideas with an action plan for follow-up. Most of the team’s ideas were implemented within three months. Major outcomes for this shop/production team included (see reference 3):

  • Increased available floor space by 20% in the bindery
  • Built new material handling carts which eliminated multiple handling and reduced waste at the collators
  • Eliminated or improved non-value adding operations
  • Developed written procedures to facilitate training of part-time and peak-season employees
  • Eliminated the bottleneck, which saved three jobs (freeing these people to work in other departments)
  • Increased sales by 25% without increasing staffing; reduced lead-time by at least 50%
  • Obtained a payback of nine times cost; later identified an almost equal amount of savings in inventory


Corporate Image manufactures presentation packaging products such as notebooks and video cases used by companies to market their products and services. Fritz James, president, wanted to empower his employees, reduce process variation (quality costs) through improved process documentation, reduce order lead time and improve communication, both internal and external. He asked me to assess alternatives for launching Kaizen teams. After reviewing process steps with the management team, we agreed on a plan. Over the next twelve months, I facilitated four Kaizen workshops and two cross-team meetings for Corporate Image.

The first project addressed the process from first customer call through pre-press. The team established an action plan for implementing their improvement ideas numbering well over 1000. After follow-up meetings to consolidate their first priority, a procedures manual, the team spent less than four weeks developing procedures for all of their processes. Major outcomes for this administrative project included:

  • Developed procedures manual as a benchmark for further cross-functional improvement
  • Developed on-line price book
  • Developed new work order to group instructions by functional group
  • Reduced scrap costs by $95,000 and reduced rework costs by $10,800
  • Reduced order lead time by 35.3%
  • Implemented other cost savings of over $75,000 including one job saved (employee promoted to another department) and over 20% reduction in warehouse space requirements
  • Received payback on Kaizen projects to date of over 19:1

"Jim and I agreed…to start several Kaizen teams that would start the process of improving the procedures used, increase understanding between departments, and set up a method of empowering individuals and teams to make continuous improvements. The results were very positive and contributed to the most successful year for Corporate Image."

Fritz James, President


Kaizen teams typically improve all three of the major drivers (quality, cost, and delivery) by eliminating non-value adding tasks and improving process documentation. The resulting documentation (set-up sheets, process procedures, and quality standards) makes training more effective; and, by causing more consistent task execution, it also improves quality. The documentation is helpful for companies pursuing ISO certification and also forms the standard from which to launch further improvement efforts. As quality improves, both cost and delivery improve. Floor space requirements and total process times are usually reduced by at least 20 percent. Cost of implementing Kaizen are recovered quickly with payback ratios ranging from 3:1 to 9:1. With strong management support, paybacks of 15:1 to 30:1 are not uncommon. In conclusion, I highly recommend Kaizen as a low-cost, team-oriented approach that leverages company resources.






Size of improvement

Small improvements

Major improvements

Basis of improvement

Conventional knowledge

Technology or equipment

Main resource

Personal involvement

Money investment

People involved

Many people

A few champions


Improve the process

Improve results


Even in slow economy

Mainly in good economy



Process creates results

Without improving process, results do not improve, Look to improvement of one or more of the five inputs to the process – persons, machines, methods, materials, and environment.

Total systems focus vs. departmental focus

Look for optimum vs. sub-optimum – a dime saved in one department has no merit if it adds a dollar of cost in another department.

Non-blaming and non-judgmental

Determine what is wrong, not who is wrong. Find the cause of the problem and correct it, but do not kill the messenger.



1. Standardize-Do-Check-Act (SDCA) to Plan-DO-Check-Act (PDCA)

Follow the Shewhart cycle (see Exhibit 4).

2. The next process is the customer

Ask what you can do to improve product or services that you pass along to the next process.

3. Quality first

Improving quality automatically improves cost and delivery, while focus on cost usually causes deterioration in quality and delivery.

4. Market-in vs. product out

Instead of pushing products into the market and hoping customers will buy them, ask potential customers what they need/want and develop products that meet these needs and wants.

5. Upstream management

The sooner in the design/pilot test/production/market cycle a problem can be found and corrected, the less time and money is wasted.

6. Speak with data

The statistical tools from Exhibit 4 will provide data for convincing arguments.

7. Variability control and recurrence prevention

Ask ‘Why?’ five times to get to the real cause of a problem and to avoid just treating the effect of the problem.



Follow the Shewhart Cycle (PDCA):

P – Plan

Pick a project (Pareto Principle)
Gather data (Histogram and Control Charts)
Find cause (Process Flow Diagram and Cause/Effect Diagram
Pick likely causes (Pareto Principle and Scatter Diagrams)
Try Solution (Cause/Effect: who, what, why, when, where, how)

D – Do

Implement solution

C – Check

Monitor results (Pareto, Histograms, and Control Charts)

A – Act

Standardize on new process (Write standards, Train, Foolproof, Quality-At-The-Source [QUATS])



  • Seiri
SORT what is not needed. Use the red tag system of tagging items considered not needed, then give everyone a chance to indicate if the items really are needed. Any red tagged item for which no one identifies a need is eliminated (sell to employee, sell to scrap dealer, give away, put into trash.
  • Seiton
STRAIGHTEN what must be kept. Make things visible. Put tools on peg board and outline the tool so its location can be readily identified. Apply the saying "a place for everything, and everything a place.
  • Seiso
SCRUB everything that remains. Clean and paint to provide a pleasing appearance.
  • Seiketsu
SPREAD the clean/check routine. When others see the improvements in the Kaizen area, give them the training and the time to improve their work area.
  • Shitsuke
STANDARDIZATION and self-discipline. Established a cleaning schedule. Use downtime to clean and straighten area.



1. Overproduction

Production more than schedule

2. Waiting

Poor balance of work; operator attention time

3. Transportation

Long moves; re-stacking; pick up/put down

4. Processing

Protecting parts for transport to another process

5. Inventory

Too much material ahead of process hides problems

6. Motion

Walking to get parts because of space taken by high WIP.

7. Defects

Material and labor are wasted; capacity is lost at bottleneck



The standard is the best, easiest, and safest process to complete the job. Components of standardized work include
TAKT time The drumbeat of the process. Divide available work minutes by quantity required to determine minutes per piece (this is the TAKT time). Eliminate waste, then balance work to TAKT time.
Work Sequence Individual steps in the process performed by employees.
Standard WIP Smallest amount of WIP required to do the job. Get parts in smaller containers so they take less space. If WIP is kept to buffer downtime from the producing area, take steps to reduce the maximum downtime for that process – this reduces the buffer required.



1 Masaaki Imai, Kaizen, the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1986).

2 The exhibits in this paper are patterned after materials taught by Kaizen Institute of America, 108 El Reno Cove, Suite 100, Austin, Texas 78734.

3 Jim Black, "Audubon Media Corporation Applies the Cycle of Continuous Improvement and Strategic Planning," CIRAS News (Spring 1997):pp. 1+.


CIRAS News, Vol. 33, No. 2, Winter 1999