Distinctive Points Between Breakthrough and Kaizen

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Distinctive Points Between Breakthrough and Kaizen Improvement

Which approach would be most appropriate or applicable to your organization's needs?


Kaizen is a people-oriented strategy and mainly takes care of teamwork and cross-functional organizations. Particularly, Kaizen strategy should be implemented in any project that needs to be highly effective and provide definitive feedback of success (or failure). At the same time, breakthrough improvement opportunities should be monitored and discovered whenever needed in overall continuous improvement efforts. The significant differences between the two strategies are given in Table 2 and Table 3.

Table 2: The differences between breakthrough improvement and Kaizen (Imai, 1986)

Breakthrough improvement





Teamwork (systems approach)



Attention to great leaps

Attention to details



Information: closed, proprietary

Information: open, shared

Functional (specialist) orientation

Cross-functional orientation

Seek new technology

Build on existing technology

Line + staff

Cross-functional organization

Limited feedback

Comprehensive feedback

Comparing the columns in Table 2; breakthrough improvement breeds creativity and individualism due to its result oriented mindset and push for dramatic changes. However, Kaizen principles breed adaptability and teamwork due to its process-oriented mindset which necessitates the ability to change and cooperate. Breakthrough improvement focuses on a specialistic and technology-oriented approach as opposed to a holistic, cross-functional, and people-oriented approach as in the Kaizen strategy. Due to the orientations of these two strategies, breakthrough improvement strategies tend to have closed information and constantly seek new technology that will allow for great leaps in progress, while Kaizen strategies have open source or shared information while attempting to innovate or build on the current technology at hand which necessitates attention to detail. Regarding feedback, breakthrough improvement can obtain feedback, but at a limited rate due to the large changes this strategy calls for, while Kaizen strategies can regularly gather feedback because small changes can be made through the process. 

Table 3: Characteristics of Kaizen and breakthrough improvements (Imai, 1986)



Breakthrough improvement


Long-term and long-lasting but undramatic

Short-term but dramatic


Small steps

Big steps


Continuous and incremental

Intermittent and non-incremental


Gradual and constant

Abrupt and volatile



Selected few champions


Collectivism, group efforts, systems approach

Rugged individualism, individual ideas, and efforts


Maintenance and improvement

Scrap and rebuild


Conventional know-how and state of the art

Technological breakthroughs, new inventions, new theories

Practical requirements

Requires little investment but great effort to maintain it

Requires large investment but little effort to maintain it

Effort orientation



Evaluation criteria

Process and efforts for better results

Results for profit


Works well in a slow-growth economy

Better suited to the fast-growth economy

In Table 3 we can see the different characteristics that attain breakthrough improvement strategies and Kaizen strategies. Breakthrough improvement strategies tend to have immediate short term benefits as opposed to a steady and long lasting effect. The Western strategy of improvement will take large steps in improvement which necessitate an intermittent and inconsistent timeframe.  This, in turn, brings about abrupt and possibly volatile change in the system. In the Kaizen strategy, small steps are taken, and the timeline is consistent, which results in gradual and constant change. Certain sparks that act as a catalyst for improvement act differently in each strategy. In breakthrough improvement, sparks are recognized as new technological breakthroughs, new information, and inventions while the Kaizen strategy recognizes sparks in traditional know-how. All of these distinct characteristics are aligned with the breakthrough improvement strategy's result oriented mindset and the Kaizen strategy's process-oriented mindset.