In 1986, Masaaki Imai introduced to the Western world the Japanese word kaizen, and the concept has since passed into the language of learning and performance. Literally meaning "continuous performance improvement," kaizen was originally deployed exclusively in the manufacturing sector in Japan, particularly in the automotive industry, where it referred to steady small-step improvements in quality, on-time delivery, and lowered cost.
Focusing on eliminating waste and inefficiencies in processes and systems, kaizen has since spread to soft skills and become a well-known and widely practiced management philosophy. Kaizen's start in the West was at a propitious time, for it was ushered in during the rise of TQM in the 1980s, just before the performance improvement trend began to take off in the 1990s.
Kaizen shuns the inflated rhetoric of an organizational "reinvention" or "transformation" and targets instead small quantum shifts in infrastructure. It believes in small-scale incremental improvements and piecemeal process engineering. With a practical feet-on-the-ground philosophy of organizational development, kaizen focuses on task-specific small-step improvements that fine-tune organizations through gradual and orderly advances; in place of paradigm-shattering breakthroughs, there is daily evolution. The magic is one of productive minimalism rather than extreme shifts.
Similar to the practice of "lessons learned," kaizen preaches attention to detail. And as with lessons learned, kaizen is also long-term, and is typically implemented by middle management and line workers, with encouragement and direction from above. Thus, as a business strategy, it involves everyone in an organization working together, in order to make improvements without large capital investments.
In a world loud with the preaching of "global solutions," the power of kaizen lies in its continuous solving of micro-problems; it thrives in companies that nurture sustained small-step improvements.
Masaaki Imai: Kaizen: The Key to Japanese Competitive Success.
James Womack and Dan Jones: Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation.
Masaaki Imai: Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense, Low-Cost Approach to Management.
See also Action Learning Performance Improvement and Performance Consulting Total Quality Management