PurposeIn recent years, small family businesses in Mexico have come under enormous pressure from their external environment: this has resulted in serious problems affecting the running of their businesses, leading ultimately to a drop off in sales, customers and market share. Some have attempted to respond to this environment by using the Japanese approach of kaizen (meaning continuous improvement). The purpose of this paper is to ask if the kaizen approach is implemented in a specific environment such as that of small family businesses in Mexico. Design/methodology/approachIn this study, qualitative research was conducted using case studies as the research strategy. Two small, family‐run Mexican businesses were selected and studied (a restaurant and hotel) and a retrospective focus was adopted; four methods were used to gather data: direct observation; participative observation; documentary analysis; and semi‐structured interviews. FindingsThe findings of the three case studies show that the kaizen approach can be applied to small family businesses in Mexico, but that the degree of implementation depends on the evolutionary stage of each family business. Consequently, for this first exploratory study, it was found that, in the start‐up stage, only the First Guiding Principle of kaizen was observed, along with some indications for the Fourth Guiding Principle. Whereas for the expansion stage, the consolidated presence of the Second, Fourth and Fifth Guiding Principle of kaizen was observed. Finally, it was possible to identify certain techniques and tools at every stage in addition to the Guiding Principle. In closing, the exploratory study made it possible to investigate the major enablers and inhibitors that a family business goes through. Research limitations/implicationsResearch was based in two case studies. However, rather than seeking empirical generalisation, the research tried to examine and explore how the kaizen approach is applied in a specific environment such as that of a sports organisation dedicated to football in Mexico. Practical implicationsThe paper aspires to be of interest as much to researchers as to professionals in the family business context, whether they have top management responsibilities or are middle managers, and also to all those employees whose work is related to this sector, with the aim of understanding the management of small family businesses in Mexico from the kaizen perspective. Originality/valueA review of academic and practitioner literature on the subject indicated that implementation of the kaizen approach in family businesses had scarcely begun to be explored. It is also significant that in Mexico and Latin America, examples of the implementation of this kind of approach are practically non‐existent in academic literature on family businesses.