Kaizen is a Japanese word that has gained enough attention to transcend cultures. By now, most of us have heard of it and have at least a vague idea of what it means. A simple translation is "small changes for the better."

I have logged more than 2,000 hours teaching lean continuous-improvement. Kaizen is one of the tools in the lean tool kit.

Kaizen has appeal for some good reasons:

The Purpose of Safety Kaizen

Employees often see unsafe conditions and behaviors more quickly than management does. They need a structured way to address those issues that is easy to monitor and manage. They are the ones exposed to the danger and have the most skin in the game.

Kaizen fulfills this function. It allows any employee to suggest, create, and implement simple improvements.

Kaizen systems are easy to implement. If you find it difficult, it's because you missed the point of kaizen. Complexity leads to self-sabotage. There is genius in simplicity. We love activities where we clearly understand what we need to do and we can go all Nike on it and “Just do it.”

This is the power of kaizen. It helps us train everyone to think like safety leaders. (We are training them to be Dragon Slayers.)

The kaizen safety formula is simple:

Employees see danger + Kaizen program allows them to address danger quickly = Empowered employees improving safety

If workers can’t address unsafe conditions quickly, these unsafe conditions become normalized. We are adaptable, which makes it difficult for us to have a sense of urgency about unsafe conditions that have been around for a long time. A kaizen program allows employees to state the problem and propose a solution, giving them ownership over it.

How to Implement a Simple Kaizen System

You can implement a kaizen system that is effective and easy to use. Start by creating a simple kaizen form that asks the following four questions.

  1. What is the problem as we understand it? A well-stated problem gives traction toward its resolution. A well-stated problem makes sure everyone agrees about the problem.
  2. What is the proposed solution? A stated solution gives us a chance to give feedback and gain buy-in. With kaizen, we are after high agreement. We need a consensus about the solution. Employees feel better about solutions when they have a voice in them.
  3. Who is going to do the work? Those who created the kaizen system should implement it. This is not a suggestion box; it is an improvement process. Kaizen activities should be simple to implement.
  4. When will it be done? All projects need due dates. Make sure all the necessary tools, supplies, and instructions are available. Set a follow-up date a few weeks after the project is done to assess how well the solution worked.

When someone can state a problem in a way that answers all four questions, we can be confident the problem will be resolved. If they can’t, the problem will most likely remain. If a safety concern is uncovered and remains for long, people will adopt it as normal.

A kaizen form is a great tool that works in many different environments. The forms can be posted on communication boards and discussed in team meetings. (Learn about 6 Ways Regular Safety Meetings Decrease Incidents and Keep Employees Safe.)

Have your safety manager review and sign off on projects to ensure they are compliant with all safety regulations. I reviewed safety kaizens daily when I was a safety manager, and it took less than ten minutes each day.

Levels of Kaizen

There are two levels of kaizen: activities and events.

Kaizen Activities

These are simple kaizens that we can easily do once we have the four questions answered and have buy-in. These should make up the bulk of your kaizen projects.

Kaizen Events

These are larger projects that may require more time, resources, and planning. We want to be able to provide support for good ideas that may require more of it due to their scope. Kaizen events are fantastic for building camaraderie and relationships between management, engineering, and shop-floor employees.

Final Thoughts

Kaizen is more about resourcefulness then resources. It is limited by our creativity and imagination, not by our money and technology. We are creative by nature and it is in our DNA to drive positive change. We instinctively want to fix things we know are wrong.

Create a culture that gives employees freedom and support to take ownership of safety and drive improvements.

The fastest way to kill a kaizen program is to forget to thank and acknowledge those that create and complete the kaizens. No one has ever felt over-appreciated at work. When we feel others do not value our accomplishments, we stop doing them.