Purpose – Since Masaaki Imai coined the term Kaizen in the mid 1980s it has been regarded as a key element in the competitiveness of Japanese companies. However, even though Kaizen was defined by the author who created the term, writings by scholars and practitioners in the field exhibit a certain degree of ambiguity and inconsistency. Finally, there is a clear need to develop this theory in the field of operations management. The purpose of this paper is to analyse Kaizen in the academic and practitioner literature, in order to better understand it and further explore and contribute to its potential theoretical profile. Design/methodology/approach – A literature review was carried out using Kaizen as a search term. Various databases were used for this purpose and books written by both scholars and by practitioners on the subject were also consulted. The literature concerning Kaizen was methodically analysed and categorised. Findings – The findings of the study indicate that Kaizen is presently displayed under three perspectives or umbrellas, which include a series of principles and techniques. By comparing the three perspectives, a set of guiding principles and/or cornerstones for Kaizen have also emerged. Research limitations/implications – Analysis and classification is based on the literature that has been found and reviewed, along with the knowledge of authors on the subject, and may include other features as well as other angles of analysis. Practical implications – The Kaizen literature review is very limited. In writing this paper a considerable number of articles and research related to Kaizen has been reviewed. This review resulted in an initial classification of Kaizen (three umbrellas) and four major topics, which may prove useful for managers or executives who are introducing or developing Kaizen in their organizations. Originality/value – As far as the authors are aware, this is one of the first papers that proposes a literature review in an attempt to clarify Kaizen, both in academic and practitioner ambits.