The Japanese business philosophy Kaizen (“improvement”) is usually applied to optimize business processes. In this context, a continuous improvement of processes via small steps is favored over large and risky revolutionary changes. The ideas of Kaizen have proven to be adaptable to many types of systems and industries, and usually work best with well-established systems, where focus on small improvements yields large cumulative impacts and progress is not hampered by issues resulting from underlying systemic problems.

One of the Kaizen approaches (or steps, depending on the point of view) is the 5S methodology, which is used to quickly review and remedy small day-to-day issues. The name 5S comes from five Japanese words: seiri (整理), seiton (整頓), seisō (清掃), seiketsu (清潔), and shitsuke (躾). These are usually translated as “sort,” “set in order,” “shine,” “standardize,” and “sustain” (more for the alliterative quality than the accuracy of the meaning). Sometimes, a sixth S is added, i.e., “safe.” The application of 5S (or 6S) is typically called “quick Kaizen,” as it can be done on the spot without much planning, but still has the potential to yield significant cumulative improvements.

Both Kaizen and 5S require buy-in and an open mindset from across the organization (or at least the departments or teams using them), followed by consistent focus over time. It should not be the expectation that a one-off 5S review would yield the desired result, as only the continuous and cumulative application of the philosophy gives it real value.

The Kaizen business philosophy was one of the inspirations for our team at Cognition Shared Solutions LLC to develop a new analytic framework: the Trilayer Business Process Analysis™. Our key focus was to develop an analytical tool that would work for systems where Kaizen is applied. Although the Trilayer framework is also useful for systems requiring major overhauls, one of the guiding philosophies of the Trilayer framework is to provide a clear picture of the situation within the three following areas of interest: processes, data, and risk. At Cognition Shared Solutions LLC, we are convinced that:

  • Processes should be split into well-understood blocks, which can be reviewed both in isolation (as to their function) and in relation to other parts of the system (feed-forward and feed-back loops);
  • Data within the system should be cataloged and fit for purpose. After curating with the 5S approach, data should resemble tools in a workshop (having a well-described place and function), while spurious data should be eliminated to stop diverting attention; and
  • Risk (the 6th S) needs to underpin the other layers in order to protect the system, define acceptable and tolerable operational envelopes, and enable more efficient and directed use of available resources.

After applying our Trilayer Business Process Analysis™, the Kaizen philosophy can be implemented in two ways, aligned with the two approaches most usually recognized in literature:

  1. Point Kaizen can be applied to a single process or a small set of process blocks within the system. Due to now clarified links between the process, data, and risk layers, the application of Kaizen should almost automatically propagate across all three layers and lead to successive, incremental improvements.
  2. System Kaizen can be easily applied to the whole business process, as the links and feedback loops, now clearly defined by the Trilayer framework, enable propagation of the improvements across the system. Due to this clarity, any improvement within one block is more likely to positively affect the associated nodes, while significantly diminishing the risk of negative consequences and unwanted side effects that typically stem from implicit or badly understood connections within a poorly mapped business process.

For these reasons, we strongly recommend that the introduction of any continuous improvement framework like Kaizen should be preceded by our Trilayer Business Process Analysis™. Only then can the business fully benefit from the applied philosophy of improvement.

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