For many specialists, Kaizen is the essence of Lean. The main equation of Lean is Kaizen+Respect: developing in people, day after day, their ability to solve their problems with others, establishing between themselves clear rules of the game, and fostering their initiative.
In fact, what is the main purpose of an enterprise? Creating and/or manufacturing products that the market (customers) will buy, regardless what industry we are referring to. Following the main purpose an enterprise needs to produce said goods at a reasonable cost assuring to the customer the best total cost of possession. That means quality, reliability, value for the customer, and of course, competitiveness, because the enterprise has to be profitable.
Regarding competitiveness, what really makes the difference between companies? Is it your know how? Obviously. It is the basis! Is it the mastery of the direct costs? Of course. But your competitors are working hard on their direct costs too. Is it the mastery of your processes? Sure. But don't worry, all companies have excellent processes, validated by many international norms as ISO ... So what's making really the difference? Mainly, the ability to face hazard and unexpected events. That means any situation, problems, and/or unforeseen events that may occur and are not described in your processes. Even if some people are convinced that they are able to take into account everything, that is a very good way to have huge amount of documents and to deprive people of their responsibilities, we are in a changing world, and real life is full of surprises.
So, how could you ensure to your company the ability to face unexpected events? More than that, how could you ensure a quick answer to unexpected events? By employee development. By daily, regular, systematic and general problem solving, people are able to learn to detect, analyze, prioritize and solve problems, all kinds of problems, from small and daily deviation to important gaps, and even catastrophe.
But how do we develop people to understanding and being good at problem solving? Exactly in the same way we would do it for any competition, sport or gymnastics or even music: by exercises. No one is surprised when an athlete is training himself every day, and is not just waiting the competition to act. No one is surprised to know that a pianist is spending hours, day after day to play his/her scale, before practicing a piece, and then playing in front of spectators. So why should it be surprising to ask to people in a company to practice exercises day after day to develop their skills in terms of problem solving? Kaizen is first of all that: exercises to develop and maintain people capacity to detect, prioritize and solve problems.
The main misunderstanding about kaizen is to suppose that what is important is the fact that the problems are solved. No. What is important is the fact that people are more and more trained to solve any problem. Kaizen, as all Lean tools, has at least two objectives. One is simple to understand, it is done to improve a situation by solving a problem. It is the reason why Kaizen is often translated by "continuous improvement". But the second, in fact the very first one, is to train people. It also the reason why, at Toyota's, they explain that a Kaizen idea is quite never refused, whatever is the estimated saving. On the other hand, they encourage people to realize their ideas themselves as far as possible, to train and to make them aware about their ideas.
The New Year is the best time to make a good resolution- but we know that it is difficult to maintain more than one good intention! In 2014, start Kaizen: practice it!