What is kaizen?

The term kaizen is a combination of two Japanese words that, when combined, roughly translate to “good change.” Over the years, however, the term has evolved to mean “continuous improvement” and is frequently used in manufacturing and maintenance processes.

The concept of kaizen is built around small, continuous improvements that add up to significant changes over time.

Kaizen has been used by companies in various industries, from Toyota to Lockheed to Pixar, and is often spoken in the same breath as lean manufacturing and six sigma.

Kaizen vs. six sigma vs. lean manufacturing

What are the primary differences between kaizen, six sigma, and lean manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing and lean maintenance

Lean manufacturing and lean maintenance focus on trimming the fat. Trimming the fat in this case means making improvements to minimize waste—wasted time, overproduction, and excess materials. In reducing waste, a facility increases efficiency, throughput, and output.

Six sigma

Six Sigma is a quality-control process that businesses use to eliminate defects. As opposed to lean manufacturing, which prioritizes reducing waste, Six Sigma focuses on improving the quality of the final product.


Unlike lean manufacturing and six sigma, which are processes that improve specific aspects of a product or operation, the kaizen approach is a philosophy that takes aim at reducing waste, achieving continual improvement, and improving quality overall.In doing so, kaizen matches well with both lean manufacturing and six sigma.

How does kaizen work?

There are a number of core concepts behind kaizen that influence how it works:

The 10 principles of kaizen

  1. Let go of assumptions
  2. Be proactive in solving problems
  3. Don’t accept the status quo
  4. Let go of perfectionism— take an attitude of iterative change
  5. Look for solutions as you find mistakes
  6. Create an environment where everyone is empowered to contribute
  7. Ask “why” five times to get to the cause
  8. Cull information and opinions from multiple people
  9. Be creative in finding small, low-cost improvements
  10. Don’t stop improving

The kaizen 5S framework

The 5S framework is meant to help establish an ideal physical workspace. Each of the “S” words is taken from a Japanese word that describes each part of the framework.

  • Seiri. To sort or organize. Remove unnecessary items and only keep necessary workplace items.
  • Seiton. Create order. Arrange items in such a way that they’re easy to access and make the most sense for work.
  • Seiso. Cleanliness. Keeping the workspace clean and tidy.
  • Seiketsu. Systematic cleaning. Cleaning in the best and most efficient way possible.
  • Shitsuke. Discipline. Maintaining sustained effort over time.

The kaizen cycle

The kaizen cycle is a repeatable process made up of seven steps that can be implemented for continuous improvement. The steps are:

  1. Get the employees involved
  2. Find problems
  3. Create a solution
  4. Test the solution
  5. Analyze the results
  6. Adopt the solution (if successful)
  7. Repeat on an ongoing basis

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The PDCA cycle

Like kaizen, the PDCA cycle is a process of continuous improvement for maintenance teams. It’s broken down into four distinct stages:


This is when a maintenance team decides on what process needs improving. The plan should define activities and the expected outcomes.


This is the execution phase of the process. This is where the plan is put into motion, whether it’s to change work practices, train employees, or purchase/install new equipment.


Data is collected throughout the PDCA cycle and assessed during this phase. This is where the team analyzes the results to see if they line up with predictions.


Acting is different from doing in that the organization is acting upon the results of what happens in the doing phase. If the outcome is positive, then the change is formalized and made permanent. If the outcome is not as good as expected, the plan is modified and the cycle begins again until a desirable result is achieved.

The kaizen methodology and continuous improvement

The kaizen method has been adopted by many businesses and teams that operate maintenance in order to employ continuous improvement and quality to specific processes. Kaizen helps maintenance teams minimize waste, from wasted time to overproduction and excess materials. In reducing waste, a facility can increase efficiency, throughput, and output.

Total quality management is the key to the kaizen philosophy and methodology. Learn more about other maintenance strategies employed by teams and how you can continue to improve your team, business and customer satisfaction.

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