How Kaizen and Lean Manufacturing Work Together

Written by: Emily Himes

Read Time: 8 min

In an era marked by competitive pressures and market volatility, manufacturers face numerous uncertainties that can impact their operations and bottom line. The Kaizen philosophy, with its focus on continuous improvement (CI) and manufacturing flexibility, offers a strategic approach to address these challenges, enabling organizations to stay agile, optimize processes, and thrive in dynamic market conditions.

What is Kaizen?

Kaizen, a Japanese term for “change for the better,” is an approach to operations that prioritizes small, positive improvements to achieve impactful success. The strategy strives to combine the collective talents within an organization to create a powerful force of continuous change. By emphasizing incremental changes and empowering employees to participate in the improvement process, Kaizen enables organizations to adapt to evolving challenges, enhance efficiency, and achieve sustainable growth in today's competitive business landscape.

Types of Kaizen

As a methodology and approach to solving business problems and optimizing improvements, Kaizen is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Its function and purpose dictates flexibility to meet the industry, operations, and unique requirements where it is being employed. As such, different flavors of Kaizen have evolved that are better suited for different scenarios. Each type of Kaizen targets different scopes of improvement within a manufacturing organization’s processes. Even though they seem fragmented, each type contributes to the overarching goal of CI, with the choice of approach depending on the specific context and objective of the improvement initiative. Some organizations may use multiple types of Kaizen in different areas of their operations.

Point Kaizen

Point Kaizen focuses on making small, incremental improvements at specific points within the manufacturing process. It aims to address localized issues or inefficiencies to achieve immediate improvements in performance or quality. This might mean rearranging the layout of a workstation to reduce delays caused by inefficient tool placement or implementing changes to reduce setup time on a specific machine. It can leverage the expertise of front-line workers, who may not have been previously empowered to make these changes, but their experience and expertise make them invaluable in suggesting optimizations that, while small, can accumulate over time to have a profound impact on efficiency, quality, and worker safety.

Line Kaizen

As its name implies, Line Kaizen concentrates on improving individual assembly lines within a manufacturing facility. This type of improvement focuses on enhancing the efficiency, productivity, and quality of products by optimizing the workflow, layout, and equipment usage of the production line. In practice, this could mean redesigning the workflow of a packaging line to reduce changeover time.

Plane Kaizen

Plane Kaizen refers to improvements made across multiple functions or departments within an organization. This might include breaking down silos and coordinating efforts across multiple departments (such as production, procurement, and distribution) to optimize processes horizontally.

System Kaizen

While Point Kaizen emphasizes gradual, small improvements, System Kaizen focuses on entire systems. It aims to optimize the overall flow and functionality of interconnected processes, often requiring a more holistic approach. This type of Kaizen is best used for tackling larger concerns such as systemic issues or bottlenecks. System Kaizen will likely require the input of workers in different roles, operation sites, and people with an elevated perspective that can look across these different functions to identify opportunities for improvement.

Cube Kaizen

Cube Kaizen—which entails making improvements in three dimensions—emphasizes a comprehensive view of the organization’s processes, encouraging advancement in the depth of understanding and problem-solving capabilities. This practice focuses on streamlining operations in terms of:

  • Height (vertically within an organization’s hierarchy)
  • Width (horizontally across departments)
  • Depth (deep within specific processes or workflows)

As its description suggests, this one of the most far-reaching applications of Kaizen methodology, and often requires seasoned process improvement experts who can map out how improvements in direction or area will impact another. They are also tasked with balancing changes in a way so that end net-result is positive and prevents unintended disruptions.

What are the benefits of using Kaizen?

Increased teamwork

Kaizen focuses on creating shared goals, empowering employees to contribute ideas for improvement, learning from mistakes, and celebrating milestones. By promoting a collaborative environment where employees work together to identify problems, develop solutions, and implement CI initiatives, the framework fosters teamwork in all kinds of manufacturing environments. Further, these practices all lead to increased employee engagement by encouraging a sense of ownership over their work, driving innovative contributions and active participation. Particularly for point Kaizen, these changes have the added benefit of being immediately appreciated by employees. An improved layout, for instance, might immediately increase their productivity while reducing fatigue and strain.

Improved efficiency

Kaizen systematically identifies and addresses inefficiencies, empowers employees, and fosters a culture of CI and customer centricity. Put another way, Kaizen practitioners systematically look for efficiency gaps, solve for those, and move on to the next opportunity—a foundational element to continuous improvements and sustained efficiency gains in a way that favors incremental, constant advancement over large-scale, potential risky changes. The framework also leverages data-driven decision-making to prioritize improvement opportunities and measure the impact of those initiatives. This ensures a targeted, sustainable approach and provides a more accurate way of predicting outcomes—intended and unintended—before changes are implemented.

Elevated safety

The framework takes a proactive approach to safety management by empowering employees to address hazards on the spot. Kaizen’s focus on safety helps create a more secure work environment for everyone involved in the manufacturing process.

Better leadership skills

Kaizen fosters leadership development across all levels of manufacturing organizations by emphasizing employee empowerment. It is important that leaders cultivate an environment that encourages active participation, enabling improvement ideas to emerge from every level of the organization. Compatible with strategies like connected worker, a Kaizen approach recognizes that workers' insights and expertise provide tangible business value well beyond their direct responsibilities. This, in turn, creates a class of management that is savvier at finding and recognizing that value.

How does Kaizen reduce waste?

The Kaizen approach reduces waste by prioritizing the streamlining of processes and resources. This systemic approach to process optimization is combined with a focus on employee involvement and CI. Together, these elements enable organizations to identify and eliminate waste across various parts of operations, leading to increased efficiency, productivity, profitability, and sustainability. For companies who recognize that sustainability is essentially the inefficiency footprint of their operations, Kaizen is an indispensable resource for shrinking that footprint.


Kaizen emphasizes producing only what is needed, when it's needed, and in the quantity needed. By constantly reviewing production processes and optimizing them, teams can eliminate overproduction, which can lead to excess inventory, increased storage costs, and potential product obsolescence.


A symptom of overproduction, excess inventory overhead can similarly be optimized using Kaizen. Specifically, companies can implement inventory management systems that ensure materials are ordered and used efficiently. By minimizing excess inventory, an organization can free up cash flow, reduce storage costs, and prevent waste from outdated or expired stock.


By encouraging a quality-centric culture in which every employee is responsible for identifying and addressing defects in processes and products, Kaizen reduces rework and waste associated with producing faulty items. This allows for CI that perpetuates best practices for producing high-quality materials. It can also have a downstream impact on service teams, who are responsible for ensuring customer success with products once they leave the warehouse and enter the field.


Overprocessing waste occurs when more work is done than is required by the customer. The elimination of unnecessary steps or processes that do not provide value is central to Kaizen, so by standardizing operations and focusing on customer needs, organizations can achieve cost savings and improved productivity. This approach is one of the best outcomes of Kaizen, where companies and customers benefit and gain value from doing less.


Kaizen encourages organizations to identify and reduce wait times in processes by streamlining workflows, optimizing scheduling, and improving communication between teams. By minimizing idle time and delays, companies can enhance productivity and improve customer satisfaction.


Kaizen strives to minimize the movement of materials and products between locations by eliminating unnecessary handling and improving logistics. By reducing transportation waste, companies can lower costs, improve delivery times, and enhance overall efficiency. This not only benefits the bottom line but also contributes to sustainability efforts by reducing carbon emissions, fuel consumption, and environmental impact associated with transportation activities.

What is the Kaizen approach?

For even the most comprehensive Cube Kaizen models, the approach depends on involvement and participation from across the organization. It incorporates the insights of experts and those most familiar with their spheres of expertise that can challenge the status quo and identify improvements. At the same time, it creates space for those less familiar to similarly question long-trusted processes and operations and imagine a new, better way of doing things.


To begin, teams gather to generate ideas for improving processes or addressing specific problems. Brainstorming sessions should encourage creativity and collaboration, allowing participants to freely share their insights.


Once ideas are generated, teams move on to collecting data to assess the current state of the process. Measurement helps quantify the extent of inefficiencies or issues and provides a baseline for evaluating improvement efforts.


After gathering data, teams compare the current state of the process or problem against the benchmarks set out during the brainstorm stage. This comparison helps identify gaps or areas for improvement and informs decision-making about which improvement opportunities to prioritize.


With a clear understanding of the current state and desired outcomes, teams can then work together to find and implement robust solutions to address any identified issues. This step encourages thinking outside the box and exploring new approaches to improve efficiency, quality, or other KPIs. This process of putting improvements into practice can also surface secondary consequences—positive and negative—of those changes. This maximizes the positive impact and allows any unintended affects to be eliminated before said changes are scaled up in a standardized way.


Once innovative solutions are identified and tested, teams work to standardize the improved process. Standardization involves documenting new procedures, creating new guidelines, and establishing best practices to ensure consistency and sustainability of improvements over time.


CI is a fundamental principle of Kaizen, so the process doesn’t end by simply implementing solutions. Instead, teams repeat the entire cycle regularly to drive ongoing improvements and ensure that processes remain optimized in the long term. This part of the cycle recognizes that while a new process has demonstrated itself to be an improvement over the previous process, the new process itself may still have further optimizations, or it has exposed inefficiencies elsewhere that can now be more easily addressed.

What is Lean Manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing is a framework that aims to eliminate inefficiencies, or waste, throughout the production process. By making the most efficient use of labor, materials, machinery and time, Lean minimizes the resources used in production. Resources that don’t add value to the customer, such as unnecessary transportation or excess inventory, count as waste.

Lean empowers those involved in the manufacturing process to suggest improvements. This bottom-up approach ensures that the expertise and insights of those directly involved in manufacturing are leveraged to drive efficiency and quality improvements.

How do Kaizen and Lean Manufacturing work together?

Kaizen and Lean manufacturing share similar goals: streamlining production processes, reducing waste, and prioritizing continuous improvement (CI). The complementary methodologies can create a powerful approach to CI initiatives and waste reduction. By leveraging the strengths of both frameworks and fostering a culture of collaboration and innovation, organizations can achieve remarkable results and thrive in today’s dynamic manufacturing landscape.

Final thoughts

Kaizen and Lean manufacturing are complementary methodologies that share a common goal of CI and waste reduction. While Kaizen emphasizes a bottom-up approach by empowering employees to drive incremental improvements, lean manufacturing provides a systemic framework for optimizing processes and resources. By integrating Kaizen’s focus on employee involvement and CI with lean manufacturing’s emphasis on efficiency and waste reduction, organizations can create a culture of excellence and achieve sustainable competitive advantages.

As your organization begins to embrace Kaizen and Lean procedures, you might wonder how to best leverage different digital transformation initiatives to enhance efficiency. It's important to carefully consider factors such as technology integration, employee engagement, and strategic alignment to successfully harness the full potential of Kaizen and Lean methodologies. Leaning on Kaizen and Lean values, manufacturers must make wise investments that favor continuous transformation and improvement, rather than a more simplistic technology that offers a single improvement event, and then locks the company into a rigid, new normal.

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About the Author

Emily Himes Emily is a Content Marketing Specialist on PTC’s Commercial Marketing team based in Boston, MA. Her writing supports a variety of PTC’s product and service offerings.