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What is Kaizen?

The process improvement vocabulary list is long and filled with complex, foreign-sounding words that might scare away those individuals who aren’t familiar with the language of waste reduction, process tweaking or system analysis.

Of course, all of the terms are important in explaining process improvement, but none capture the essence of the ideology quite like this one:

Kaizen.

Kaizen is a term that describes a Japanese philosophy which encourages consistent improvement in all aspects of a person’s life. It’s about reducing the waste and inefficiency in everything.

It sounds a lot like Six Sigma or Lean, but there are actually several distinct differences between the three methodologies.

What is the Difference Between Six Sigma, Lean and Kaizen?

Six Sigma is a tool. Organizations use it to hunt down inefficiencies in processes, evaluate those inefficiencies, diagnose their root cause and eradicate them. It’s mathematical. It’s measurement-focused. It’s the pursuit of metrics and quantifiable goals.

Lean, which is often used interchangeably with Six Sigma, is about pinpointing the instances when an organization’s effort doesn’t create value (and, with a little creative thought, how that value can be recovered or recreated). Eli Whitney and Samuel Colt are a popular example of Lean in action: the gun manufacturers developed different models, but many firearms used the exact same types of parts (which made manufacturing much easier).

Kaizen, meanwhile, doesn’t have an end state. Six Sigma encourages practitioners to limit defects to 3.4 out of every million units produced, but Kaizen has no such victory criteria. It’s a mindset. It’s about utilizing tiny shifts in process and behavior to create positive, sweeping, life and organization-shifting changes, over a long period of time.

How Can Kaizen and Six Sigma Work Together?

Six Sigma and Kaizen (and, for the most part, Lean) are, arguably, at their best when they’re working together.

When an organization adopts Six Sigma, it spends a lot of time reinventing broken processes and snuffing out inefficiencies along the way. When a Six Sigma project is finished, an organization’s operational sector might look completely different—new processes, new people and an entirely new way of doing business.

Processes degrade, however. Organizations are, by nature, high-maintenance organisms. Without significant diligence, all the positive change created by Six Sigma implementation will erode, decay and disappear.

This is where Kaizen comes in. It’s a mindset. It’s about small, incremental, continuous improvements every single day. A culture of Kaizen will care for the new processes and systems created during Six Sigma implementation. It keeps employees engaged, keeps efforts earnest and keeps processes running smoothly.

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