So, What Is Kaizen, Really?

A good friend of mine and I worked at the Toyota Technical Center in Michigan, where he worked as a design engineer and I worked as a system engineer contractor. When he took a new job at an oil company a couple of years ago, what took him by surprise was how fascinated his new co-workers were when they heard about Toyota’s Kaizen processes, considering the company’s reputation and achievements in the global automobile market. Some of them even followed him around, asking all sorts of questions about Kaizen.

At that same time, I happened to join a Kaizen group on LinkedIn and started getting regular emails about all kinds of Kaizen topics. What surprised me was how many people seemed to think Kaizen was something epic and highly complex.

Kaizen is the Japanese word for “improvement” or “change for the better.” It refers to a philosophy or practices that focus upon continuous improvement of work processes. Kaizen is something anyone can easily adopt to be more effective at work – you don’t have to work in engineering or manufacturing. To help you get started today, I have compiled a list of four things you can do to become more effective by doing things “the Toyota way.”

1. “Great documents” do not mean “long documents.”

I am not exaggerating when I say that Toyota is very picky about documents. They have two predominant formats, called A4 and A3. A4 is letter size, and A3 is 11 x 17 inches. In most cases, whatever document you create has to fit on a single page in either of these formats. In fact, my friend’s manager wouldn’t accept his document one time because it had one extra line on the second page.

I remember one time I had to compile a system security report. I had all sort of graphics as well as statistics, and I thought there was no way I could fit them all in A3. I asked my manager to help me, and magically he managed to fit everything on one page – and very nicely. He told me, “At Toyota, people say ‘if you can’t create good documents, you can’t be a manager.’”

What’s the big deal if you have a few extra pages, you ask? Well, have you ever been given a lengthy report and thought, “Who would have time to read all this? I’m busy. Just tell me what I need to know!” That’s why. Most of the documents at Toyota look like what many people would consider an executive summary. Creating this type of extremely concise document serves several different purposes:

l  Keeps you focused on the most important pieces of information.

l  Makes you more aware about how the information would appear to the audience.

l  Helps you create easy-to-follow documents with graphs, diagrams and other aids rather than large blocks of text.

Creating one-page documents will also save you a lot of time spent writing and preparing extraneous information. Once you get the hang of it, it’s really quite easy.

Next time you need to create a report or even a presentation, try to fit everything you want to say on one page. Even if you end up writing a multiple-page document, the one page summary should help you develop your core message into a document that includes only the essential information.

2. Not the five W’s, but the five Y’s.

As we learned in English class, the Five W’s are Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Answering all five of these questions will give the reader complete information. At Toyota, it is a bit different: Why, Why, Why, Why, and Why. “Root cause” and “countermeasures” are probably the two words most frequently used at Toyota. Toyota is big on finding out what might be causing problems and trying to avoid the same issues in the future. This Five Why’s (5Y) approach really helps you get to the bottom of things to improve processes.

For example, let’s say I just dropped and broke my MacBook Pro. What just went wrong? How could I avoid this type of situation in the future? The most obvious answer would be “try not to drop it when you get new one.” But would that really address the issue? Let’s try to ask ourselves “why” five times and find out the root cause.

l  Why did I drop my Macbook Pro? Because I was carrying it around with me without a bag.

l  Why didn’t I have a bag? Because I just needed to move the computer from my desk to the living room.

l  Why did I have to move the laptop to the living room? Because sometimes after sitting at my desk for so many hours, I get tired and want to sit on the sofa and do more work.

l  Why do I get tired if I sit at my desk for many hours? Probably because my posture is not ergonomically correct.

l  Why isn’t my posture ergonomically correct? Because my chair is firm and uncomfortable and it is hard to sit up straight in it.

Aha! Maybe what I really need to look into is the chair, not my slippery hands. The concept of the 5Ys is similar to that of a “cause and effect” diagram. The purpose is to take a hard look at the issue and track down the root cause rather than focusing on superficial secondary causes. With the example above, if I only asked myself one Why, then my conclusion would have been that I need to buy a computer bag. But that wouldn’t have addressed the issue. I am not sure if there’s any scientific reasoning as to why it’s five why’s instead of six or seven, but asking five times actually works out well most of the time.

Instead of rushing to a conclusion, practice taking more time to analyze your issue. This should help you avoid repeating the same mistakes, thereby making you a more effective asset to your company.

3. If you can’t see, then you do not know.

People say, “What you can’t see can’t hurt you,” but that’s not the case if you want to improve your effectiveness. Another big part of Toyota’s Kaizen is called Mieruka, which is loosely translated to mean “visualization.” When you really want to know something, you need to see it in numbers or some sort of tangible medium. Mieruka is about making things such as progress, delays, problems, and responsibilities visible to everyone so there is no guesswork and no misunderstanding.

Let me give you some real life examples of how Mieruka could help you. When I was managing a project for a Toyota supplier, my contact kept calling me so often that I could hardly get anything done. My manager suggested I examine my phone logs to see exactly how many times she had called me. It turned out that only a fraction of the calls I received were from her. I just felt like I was getting a lot of calls from her, but when I looked at the actual number, it was clear that the problem wasn’t as bad as I thought.

Another example was when my team was having trouble communicating with one of the teams in Japan. My team felt the Japanese team was causing delays, and they thought we were the ones who weren’t getting back to them quickly. I decided to turn this finger-pointing impasse into a graph to determine who was at fault. How can you make “communication” visible so you can figure out who is slowing things down? Well, I picked a color for each team: blue for my team, and green for the Japanese team. Each time we called or emailed each other, I filled one cell of the spreadsheet with the color of the party who didn’t initiate the communication. So if my team called, then I would fill one cell with green, and I added another green cell each day until we heard from them. If they contacted us about something, I would put a blue cell on the spreadsheet. I did this for each topic of communication.

A week or two passed, and we observed that one color began to dominate the spreadsheet, which ultimately showed us which team was keeping the ball in their court for too long. I posted the spreadsheet where everyone on my team could see it, so when we started seeing too much blue, we knew we needed to get back to the other team. Instead of speculating and finger-pointing, we knew exactly what was taking place by taking a glance at a single piece of paper on the wall.

4. It’s not always the technology that brings effectiveness.

You may have noticed that Toyota’s Kaizen methods are very low tech. These days, many processes in the business world are being automated, requiring less and less human interaction. So, you might think that the ultimate goal for Kaizen is to achieve 100% automation with no manual labor. This is actually the opposite of what Toyota believes. 

The image on the left shows the Japanese characters for “automation.” The one on the right shows Toyota’s version of it. Notice how it has an extra part (red) in the middle character. This part represents “human.” For Toyota, automation without human involvement is not possible. Automation exists because people are involved. It’s people first, and then everything else follows.

This principle is reflected in the Kaizen methods. They are really about how humans do their work more effectively and get better at it. Kaizen does not require any special machines, equipment, or software. It merely entails doing things a little differently.

Engineers at Toyota Technical Center used a big white paper board to keep track of progress on their work – not a big, expensive touch screen. Yes, it was low tech, but it was simple and clear to everyone. Instead of an online calendar on my computer, I used a similar paper method to keep track of my work, and it worked very well. Any time I needed to do something, I put a description on a sticky note with a target completion date and put it on a big calendar in the square for the completion date. If a task ever got delayed, I would move the note to the square for the new target date. This way, I knew: a) what to do, b) when I was originally supposed to finish it, and c) when I actually plan to finish it. If you use different colors of sticky notes, you can indicate what sort of tasks they are. This fulfills Mieruka very well because it’s visual, clear, and easy for anyone to understand.


I acquired some valuable skills working at Toyota. I learned how to create good documents, how to make intangible things visible, and how to utilize everyday tools such as cardboard and sticky notes to prevent problems. But the most important lesson of all was to be aware of what I do.

If someone asked you to create an issue list, what would you do? Would you just enter descriptions of issues in an Excel spreadsheet and be done with it? Frankly, that’s what I would have done in prior to my experience at Toyota. Today, I would do something different. The first column in the spreadsheet would be the issue number. “Wait a second,” you may ask, “why would you need that when there are already row numbers in Excel?” It’s because many people want to sort and re-sort data in a spreadsheet, and each time they do, the item in Row 6 changes, so you end up scrolling through the whole sheet to find the name of your item. Having a unique number for each issue is imperative if you want everyone on the same page. This is a very small detail, but it definitely helps communication go more smoothly.

After working in an environment infused with Kaizen and experiencing the excellent outcomes, it’s hard to work in an environment where Kaizen is not the modus operandi. When I see the labor some of my colleagues put into writing multipage documents that don’t convey a clear message clearly because of excess verbiage, I’m disappointed they have not yet discovered the amazing effectiveness and simplicity of Kaizen. I become frustrated at how people get their cup of coffee and settle into autopilot mode, doing things exactly the same way without continually trying to make improvements, and I witness the poor quality that inevitably results. So I have become a Kaizen evangelist, extolling its virtues to all who will listen and touting its benefits to those who want to take their company to the next level of excellence.

Although the techniques I described above may be elementary to some, just take a moment and ask yourself: Do I really put thought into my work? Do I think about the audience? Could I do my job more effectively? Do I really take the time to analyze issues so they won’t happen again?

Toyota’s Kaizen spirit is not about taking a giant leap and doing something extraordinary. It is about taking a step back and keeping things simple, rather than relying heavily on technology. It is about doing what you do every day a little better each time, simply by paying a little extra attention.

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