The Kaizen approach can improve your employees’ well-being

Ce document est réservé à l'usage exclusif de et ne peut faire l'objet d'aucune autre utilisation ou diffusion auprès de tiers. Tous droits réservés, Global-Watch ®

Légende: Recommendation of our expert

Expert adviser:

Michel PÉRUSSE, associate professor, Université de Sherbrooke


France ST-HILAIRE, associate professor, Human Resource Management, Université de Sherbrooke
Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke
Maude VILLENEUVE, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke
Rébecca LEFEBVRE, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.

Japanese continuous improvement methods such as Kaizen have been gaining in popularity in Western organizations over the past 10 years. These methods have been criticized, as some people find them inhuman and used to increase the rate of production, but can Kaizen also improve the psychological well‑being of employees?

von Thiele Schwarz and colleagues (2017) carried out two studies to understand the relationship between employee well-being and interventions. They wanted to find out whether

  • Kaizen can be directly related to better employee well-being;
  • Kaizen can have a positive effect on the well-being of employees when used as a way of improving the management of risk factors in the work environment;
  • Kaizen interventions can transform the way of working as an organization.

What do we mean by : Kaizen?

Kaizen is one of the lean methods – an approach to production management that claims to be light and efficient, where one seeks to increase the value of a product for a customer by reducing losses in the process, especially in terms of time.


Kaizen is

  • a slow, continuous improvement method, done through small daily actions (as opposed to drastic change or radical innovation).
  • a quality management approach that aims to reduce lost time, material, space or efficiency by improving methods, processes or organization.
  • an essentially participative approach: in all cases, the intervention is done as a group, with several employees involved.

A visual management method: Kaizen boards

  • The Kaizen method can involve the use of a number of tools: Kanban, PokaYoke, 5S (the latter being other examples of “lean” visual tools, such as posters, shapes, colours to make tasks visually clear).
  • The use of visual management is common practice in Kaizen methods, as visualization promotes the participants’ ownership of the project.

The boards serve to illustrate the process as a whole, and contribute to monitoring the implementation of the proposed improvements and the evaluation of their results.

Psychological risks

Psychosocial risks are elements of the work environment (e.g.: overwork, role problems and conflicts, unsuitable schedules, lack of coordination of work) that don’t have a physiochemical aspect, but that can nevertheless harm the physical or psychological health of employees.

What do the results of the study tell us ?


  • Improvement of psychosocial risk management
    • Because it is participatory, the Kaizen method can be used as a way of improving psychosocial risk management and of changing how the work is organized.
    • Kaizen therefore indirectly promotes employee well-being.
    • Kaizen increases employees’ decision-making power over their work by promoting dialogue around processes and opportunities to act positively when it comes to psychosocial problems.
  • Integration of the organization’s and employees’ objectives
    • The more the Kaizen method combines the employees’ and the organization’s objectives at the same time, the greater the employees’ well-being.
  • Pre-existing employee job satisfaction: a lever for the Kaizen method to promote well-being
    • Job satisfaction of employees before the Kaizen method is used promotes the success of the method and therefore employee well-being.
    • By its participatory nature, the Kaizen method is more effective when employees are satisfied beforehand, because teamwork is much easier and there is a certain openness to change.


Study 1: In a Danish post office, the Kaizen board tool as a participative method was used to evaluate the improvement of employee well-being. To do this, two groups of participants were followed at two different points in time:

  • Two analysis times: at 0 months and 12 months for both groups.
  • Number of participants: 140 in group 1 and
    137 in group 2.
  • Average age: 2 years in group 1 and 46 years in group 2.

Study 2: In a Swedish hospital, the Kaizen board tool as a participative method was used to evaluate employee well-being. To do this, two groups of participants were randomly created to represent all the different hospital units. For the first group, the intervention by the Kaizen board was used; for the other, no change was made in the work:

  • Three analysis times: à 0 months, 12 months and 24 months for both groups.
  • Number of participants: 171 people in the intervention group and 204 in the control group.
  • Average age: 45.8 years in intervention group and 44.1 in the control group. 


Because studies must always be interpreted with caution

Normally, evaluating the success of the Kaizen method in an organization is more effective when one observes its effect on a group of individuals. Although this study is based on an analysis of two groups, well-being was evaluated individually for each employee. Therefore, it would be interesting for other studies to validate the effectiveness of the Kaizen method in terms of its effects on individual well-being, as this is not common.

Actions employers can take

Clarification by our expert

Kaizen is just one form of participative intervention, which organizations are increasingly promoting. We can think of, among others, organizational interventions that are set up to counter the adverse effects of stress.

Although the scope of Kaizen is more limited, since the intervention is of a shorter duration and less complex than an organizational intervention, both types of intervention share the same “active ingredient”: the active involvement of employees in identifying psychosocial risk factors and in proposing and validating solutions. If this works for operational and logistical problems, the article interpreted here seems to show that this also works for psychosocial risk management.

The authors of the study recommend taking concrete actions to establish the Kaizen method with the aim of improving employee well-being.

Action steps Example of an organizational measure
  • Use Kaizen boards. 
  • The visual aspect of Kaizen boards helped to maintain momentum by serving as a reminder of intervention activities. Experience shows that visual management tools are useful for all forms of implementation of corrective or preventive measures.
  • Use the Kaizen board method to improve psychosocial risk management and, as a result, promote better employee well-being.
  • The recipe’s active ingredient is the active involvement of employees in identifying psychosocial risk factors and in proposing and validating solutions.
  • Use of the Kaizen method can be as effective as the intervention of a workplace consultant. It goes without saying that a tool alone can never replace the expertise of a specialist.
  • Workplace stakeholders and organizations should explore existing tools in their performance management systems that can be used or adapted to improve psychosocial risk management.



Pérusse, M., St-Hilaire, F., Fouquet, É., Villeneuve, M., Lefebvre, R. (2018). The Kaizen approach can improve your employees’ well being. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at


Von Thiele Schwarz, U., Nielsen, K. M., Stenfors-Hayes, T., & Hasson, H. (2017). Using Kaizen to improve employee well-being: Results from two organizational intervention studies. Human Relations, 70(8), 966–993.

Also available at

Karine Casault
Author: Karine Casault