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Kaizen in Saitama City: Staff improving quality and efficiency of public services


In Saitama City, quality improvement is not just a theoretical aspiration – every staff member is encouraged to deliver at least one quality improvement project every year. Elke Loeffler and Prof. Tony Bovaird attended a Kaizen event of Saitama City on 16 November 2016 to learn how Kaizen is put into practice, at the invitation of Prof. Nobusato Kitaoji, chair of the panel of judges for the Saitama Kaizen Award.


Saitama City with 1.2 million inhabitants is the ninth largest city in Japan, formed by a merger of three local authorities in 2001 and a fourth in 2004. It is easy to reach from Tokyo and benefits from its special status as a Designated City, giving it devolved powers from the Prefecture, so that it can make its own decisions on a range of issues which are normally the responsibility of the Prefecture.

The directly elected mayor, Mr. Hayato Shimizu launched the Kaizen process when he took office in 2009. He had learned about the Kaizen practices of Shizuoka Prefecture, which inspired him to develop a similar quality improvement process in Saitama City. From the start, a strong inspiration of the Saitama Kaizen approach was Prof. Nobusato Kitaoji of Meiji University, who had acted as the key advisor to Shizuoka Prefecture.

Kaizen is the Japanese term for ‘quality improvement’. Saitama City published an official declaration of its commitment to Kaizen in 2009. According to this declaration, Kaizen in Saitama City is driven by the following key objectives:


  • To improve public services and citizen satisfaction as well as employees’ satisfaction.
  • To increase job productivity and the culture of a Kaizen oriented mindset within our working environment.
  • To promote Kaizen with open collaboration between all team members.

Change management

The implementation of Kaizen in Saitama City started in 2009. All 9000 staff members of Saitama Council, including fire services (about 1000 staff members), water management (about 300 staff) and education (about 1280 staff), are encouraged to identify opportunities for improving the efficiency and citizen-orientation of public services, to design new solutions and to implement them in their service.

Once the innovation has been implemented, the Kaizen teams are asked to document the Kaizen process by using a standard form. In 2016, more than 6000 Kaizen practices were submitted, which was a new record.

The best six Kaizen practices are selected based on a three-step selection process. First, the division managers choose the best Kaizen practices in their division. In 2016, this included about 480 practices. Then the 31 service departments choose their best Kaizen practices. Each department has its own selection team, which consists of the upper management (but not the head of the department). Finally, the Kaizen selection team chooses the six best practices. The Kaizen selection team members are staff members of Saitama City from different backgrounds, such as a school teacher, a lawyer, a civil engineer, and a bureaucrat. They are expected to choose the best six practices, taking into account a range of different aspects.

The final six nominated practices are presented to a jury in a well-attended public event.

Most of the preparations and the management of this annual convention are undertaken by young officers working as volunteers. The volunteers are recruited from the whole local authority every year, so that the spirit of kaizen spreads through the entire organization. Furthermore, volunteers who are recruited to support the Kaizen Day are also asked to create their own kaizen activity. In 2016, they made a film to follow up how one kaizen practice which had previously won the award brought about better results and how it was disseminated to other organizations.

A distinguished jury selects the best practice, based on its content. The jury in 2016 was chaired by Prof. Kitajoi from Meiji University and included Mrs. Mami Ito, CEO of the local company Nihon Dento Kougyo Ltd. , Mrs. Madoka Hattori, Chair of the Women’s Federation of the Saitama Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Mayor, Hayato Shimizu.

The selection process is based on the following criteria:

  • To what extent the Kaizen practice improves a public service, job productivity and the  working environment
  • To what extent the Kaizen practice can be replicated within the organisation
  • Originality of the practice

The audience is invited to vote for the best presentation. In 2016, the annual Kaizen event was attended by 278 people, including staff members, guests of other local authorities and a class of international graduate students from the department of public governance from Meiji University. The voting was done in a very imaginative way – for each of the six presentations a box with one of the six colours of the rainbow was provided and each attender was given a clip to throw into one of the six boxes. This idea originated from a kaizen proposal by a staff member who was a volunteer at the annual Kaizen Day. The heaviest box then indicated the winning presentation (In 2016 this was the Community Service Office in Minami Ward).

The six nominated good practices presented at the Kaizen Day on 16 November 2016 ranged from education to fire services and the HR department. All of the presentations involved creative team performances, with role play of how the need for the Kaizen practice was identified and how it was implemented; in one case, the entire team did a relevant dance sequence and in another, the whole scenario was set to music, performed by two musical members of the team.

Have a look at the summary of the event (in Japanese):

Have a look at a video clip produced by Shinji Emori, who is a local citizen, to get a taste of these imaginative performances:

This is what the six best Kaizen practices were about:

1. Department of Early Childhood Development, Childcare Service: Reducing injuries of small children through falls

In this case, the objective of this Kaizen practice was to reduce the risk of young children being injured in falls, e.g. as a result of high staircases or sharp edges to furniture in kindergartens, etc. The idea from the Childcare Service was to introduce report cards for accidents, which identified the reasons for each accident and what was being done to avoid a similar occurrence in the future.  The lessons from each accident were then disseminated to other childcare centres. Furthermore, the Kaizen team developed maps with coloured stickers to highlight dangerous spots for different age groups where near-miss accidents had happened – this triggered greater awareness of these ‘danger’ spots.  The reports also suggest actions in order to reduce the risks of accidents or the consequences of an accident.  For example, this could involve fitting dangerous corners on furniture with soft buffer material. It is estimated that for each accident with a serious injury there are 300 near-miss incidents without an injury. It is hoped that this high visibility risk management approach, together with sharing of information about actual and potential accidents, will reduce the number of serious accidents in childcare centres throughout Saitama City.

2. Fire services: Making disaster prevention training effective for young children

In Japan training for disasters such as earthquakes is a critically important issue. A team of the local fire brigade highlighted the case of Kamaishi City, where 99.3% of the population had survived the big earthquake in East Japan and suggested that emergency training had played a big role. The fire services also suggested that emergency training has to start in early childhood as it is difficult to change the behavior of adults.

But how to train children on how to behave in the case of an emergency? For the Kaizen team of the fire services department, it was evident that the training must be fun. They designed a one day training programme with young children in a nursery and came up with the new acronym “OKASHIMOCHI” to summarise the key five rules for evacuation:

O         Osanai (no pushing)

KA      Kakenai (no running)

SHI     Shabenerai (no chatting)

MO     Modoranai (no returning)

CHI     Chikazukanai (no approaching)

For each of these rules, the fire services undertook action-learning and compared the results before and after the action learning, in order to test whether the exercise had worked. As a result, they produced a prototype training programme, which can now be rolled out in other nurseries of Saitama City.

3. HR Department, Recruitment Services: Sharing of work progress through a ‘communication board’

The recruitment services of the HR Department are involved in a wide range of tasks from organizing job fairs to the organisation of entry exams, administration of examiners and posting of appointment letters to candidates who have been accepted. Frequent meetings and business trips made it difficult for staff sharing the same task to update each other on progress made and the remaining tasks to be done. However, staff got inspiration from seeing an agenda drawn up on the white board in an office of the HR Department. The idea was born to produce a table of who will do what, when – then to update the state-of-play on each action with coloured post-its, representing each staff member’s contributions. This meant that everybody’s progress could be seen at a glance – “just post-it”! Staff considered that this new practice has already helped to improve communication and efficiency.

4. Neighbourhood Office of Urawa Ward: Improving the planning of community events

Saitama City is divided into 10 wards. Each ward has a neighbourhood office, which takes care of neighbourhood issues such as organising community events. At present, this involves two different systems to schedule events at division and ward level. The lack of integration of the two systems had meant that staff had to record an event three times, which involved duplication of effort and the risk that staff might forget to record an event in at least one record system. Several staff members with strong ICT skills managed to unify the formats of the two schedules, so that new entries would be transferred automatically across the systems.

5. Public Works Division: Better information for citizens through colour coding

The 31 staff members of the Public Works Division provide a wide range of services to the public, including issuing permits for the traffic of special-purpose vehicles, selling public properties, maintaining and closing public roads and zoning. As a result, the Office receives a lot of visitors who face the challenge of which desk they should to refer to. Given that the public were able to walk about the office, the staff were also concerned about security and the potential loss of important documents. The Kaizen team decided to work on a new visitor and work flow guidance system which used a colour scheme to inform visitors as to which desk they should go to, and to inform them about action taken by the Office of Public Works. For example, green means a window, yellow means a reading space for open documents and orange suggests private zone for confidential information.

6. Community Service Office, Minami Ward: Reducing waiting times for citizens to receive the new social security and tax number card

Japan introduced a new authentication system in 2015, which provides every citizen with a number card based on their social security and tax number. This number card also serves as an official ID card and allows citizens to file tax returns on the internet. In order to receive the ‘number card’ citizens need to visit their neighbourhood office and provide a number of documents to receive the new card. Not surprisingly, this meant a big increase in visitors for the neighbourhood office, increased waiting time for citizens, and considerable confusion resulting from visitors not bringing the right documentation with them on their visit.  The Minami Ward Office handed out a leaflet which showed the procedure for issuing the ‘number card’ as simply as possible to citizens waiting. This meant they could prepare for the questions they would be asked, and the documents which would be required, while waiting in  the queue. As a result, the average waiting time for requesting the new card was reduced from 15-30 minutes to 10-15 minutes. 



A video clip of the best Kaizen practices from the previous year showed how the best Kaizen practice in 2015 had grown bigger and been embedded in the transformation of other local public services. Furthermore, the OKASHIMOCHI training programme was first carried out at eight nurseries and is now being rolled out in another six nurseries.

Performance information

The Saitama City Office is committed to satisfy the expectations of more than 90% of local citizens by 2020. The Kaizen practices are to contribute to this quality target (named CS90).

Costs and savings

Saitama Council did not provide any extra money for the design and implementation of the Kaizen practices outlined above – they were all seen as part of the normal job of staff. Of course, brainstorming on how to achieve efficiency savings involved staff time, and therefore some staff costs. However, one case demonstrated clearly that the savings of staff time achieved outweighed by far the time invested to develop the Kaizen practice - it took the Urawa Neighbourhood Office only 30 minutes to think up and implement a new way of integrating two scheduling systems. This has saved the whole Community Work Division 16 hours and 12 minutes per year. It is estimated that this results in salary savings of over 32,000 YEN per year.

However, at present, Saitama City undertakes no cost benefit analysis to evaluate the wider social benefits of the innovations, improved cost efficiency or direct savings.

Lessons learnt

Kaizen involves harnessing the ideas, creativity and energy of staff to design and implement better solutions. The enthusiasm, creativity and sense of fun shown by the six teams presenting at the 7th Kaizen Day showed that quality improvement does not have to be a dry, dull paper-based exercise by some quality experts, as is often the case.

  • In Saitama City all staff members are expected to be innovative to improve performance. Even front-line staff know that their ideas will be taken seriously and valued.
  • Successful innovations need to be shared and celebrated – this was done brilliantly at the Saitama Kaizen event.
  • The dissemination of innovations needs to be supported.

Further Information


Kaizen website of Saitama City:

About this case study
Main Contact

Tatsuhiro Sugimoto
City Strategy Headquarters

Department of Administrative and Financial Reform Promotion
Saitama City

Dr. Elke Löffler
CEO, Governance International

This case study was written by Elke Loeffler
in June 2017.

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