You may or may not have heard of the Japanese philosophy called “Kaizen”. Even if you have, you may only have ever considered it relevant to manufacturing and big corporates, but certainly not to SMEs. However, elements of Kaizen can be as useful to a small to medium businesses as to major corporations – and can even be applied to the way you manage your daily life.

So what is it? Essentially Kaizen (Kai means “change” and Zen means “good”) involves focusing on continuous, small, incremental improvements to your business which, over time, add up to significant change and progress.

The Kaizen philosophy differs in many ways to traditional management approaches. One of these is that it involves every employee from senior management to the most junior member of staff. Everyone is encouraged to come up with small improvement suggestions on a regular basis – not major changes but small ones that can improve safety, productivity, effectiveness, efficiency and so on. Often it’s the employees working on the shop floor who can see better ways to make systems work rather than the management team.

One famous example is an air hostess on SouthWest Airlines. She noticed that her passengers generally left the black olives in their salads and suggested the airline consider removing olives as most people didn’t seem to like them. The catering chief discovered that the salads were put together on a sliding scale – the first four ingredients cost a certain amount, then the fifth to tenth ingredients cost a significant amount more. The olives were – you guessed it – ingredient number five. By removing them from the salad, the airline saved itself more than half a million pounds per annum, without a single complaint – all because of one sharp-eyed air hostess!
Kaizen suggestions aren’t limited to a specific business area – everyone across the business is encouraged to suggest small changes anywhere they feel improvements can be made. The idea is to set high standards and then continually improve those standards.

It’s the reverse philosophy to the Western expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s more akin to, “If it ain’t broke, let’s keep looking at it to see how we can still improve it -because if we don’t, someone else will see a new way to do it and overtake us while we are resting on our laurels.” This, admittedly, isn’t quite as catchy.

Here are some questions you and your employees could consider in order to seek out continuous, daily, small improvements in every aspect of your business:

1. How can we make someones job easier – an employee, a customer or a supplier?
2. How can we improve the quality of our product or service without increasing our cost or the price we charge?
3. How can we reduce waste without reducing value?
4. How can we attract new sales or new customers?
5. How can we improve the quality of our work environment?
6. How can we improve the quality of each contact we have with a customer or potential customer?
7. How can we increase customer loyalty?

The theory is that all these little solutions put together eventually add up to big solutions and improve quality standards. An additional benefit is that employees of all levels become accustomed to finding ways to solve problems and feel more empowered and a real part of the business. Bigger problems also become easier to solve, because everyone feels involved and everyone sees problem solving not as something to be scared of or to hide from, but as a key part of the job. The idea is that you create a group intelligence, which is greater than the sum of all its parts.

Every place where you see an opportunity to make a change is a potential kaizen opportunity. You decide which ones to take on first. Go for the ones that give the most reward for fixing them or are the biggest immediate obstacles for you in business – the low hanging fruit. The main idea is that you look at problems and solutions in a new way and empower your staff in the process.

Sounds like a change for good to us. ( 改 kai 善 zen)

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses. www.nabcommunications.co.uk