“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
― Lao Tzu
Kaizen is a Japanese word that generally means change for the better, or improvement. Interestingly, the concept was first imported to Japan from America during the post war occupation. A product of the Great Depression and Second World War, it was an explicitly business related concept that focused on doing more with less.
The Japanese implemented this with great success, transforming it from a simple business concept to a philosophical practice. Today, kaizen often refers to a philosophy of continuous, small improvements, which if implemented successfully can produce incredible results in any aspect of life and help an individual achieve goals they otherwise wouldn’t be able to achieve.
The reason kaizen is successful is because it is purposeful and deliberate and allows us to focus on small incremental changes over time rather than large immediate ones. In today’s age of on-demand and immediate everything it’s often easy to get caught up in the belief that we can create radical change overnight. The reality is that change takes time and effort, real change doesn’t happen overnight, and when it seems like it does it’s usually because we ignored the build-up that led to that change.
It’s All About the Journey:
Perfection, sadly, is impossible. However, the goal of kaizen and the reason for it’s success is because it is a commitment to a continuous journey in pursuit, not of perfection, but of better. Kaizen allows us to break down large, seemingly impossible objectives into manageable, bite sized portions, and to achieve those objectives by a process of continuous improvement.
Want to loose weight and be healthier? Kaizen. Want to be more successful? Kaizen. Want to be happier and more fulfilled? Kaizen. Want to do better at work or make more money? Kaizen.
Kaizen works because instead of focusing on a destination we focus on the journey, this allows us to live in the present rather than an imagined future. Striving for relentless continuous improvement becomes the object rather than the means, allowing us to achieve fulfillment in the doing rather than by reaching a particular destination.
Creating the Process:
While implementing kaizen in theory is simple, it still requires work. The process of kaizen can be broken down into three general areas: 1. Process; 2. Measurement; 3. Innovation.
It sounds a little redundant to say, the process of improving the process, but that’s essentially what kaizen is. It’s not a methodology, there’s no quick and easy solution. To practice kaizen one must first start with an existing process or routine.
The easiest example is an exercise routine. Everyone wants to loose weight, or be in better shape and many of us go to great lengths to achieve this goal, with little success. Even if we have an exercise routine that we follow it eventually gets stale and boring or simply stops creating the results we want.
In order to get better at something we must be able to measure our progress with quantifiable data. This means we have to record the results of our process, for example, today I can benchpress fifty pounds, tomorrow I work on bench-pressing fifty two pounds. By recording and measuring results we can see if our process is working. This helps us to keep on track when working towards longterm objectives, where incremental change or improvement is often hard to see.
Finally, innovation. Innovation for it’s own sake may be a good or a bad thing depending on the results. But because we are looking to get better at getting better what we want to start is establishing better ways of doing what it is that we are already doing. So we must innovate our techniques and processes by doing things differently.
Going Against the Herd:
To create truly radical change we must engage in some counter intuitive thinking, because if we we only ever do what we’ve always done, we will only ever get the same results. This means that we often have to do things differently.
One of the major fundamental components to successful implementation of kaizen is to encourage mistakes. Too often our fear of doing the wrong thing or making a mistake holds us back, so we continue to act in the same old manner to avoid the mental anguish that we’ve trained ourselves to feel when things go wrong. This doesn’t mean that we want to reward ourselves for being unsuccessful, but that we want to encourage innovation and risk taking. We want to do things differently, and if that doesn’t work out, that’s okay, because we are on a journey of continuous improvement.
A second fundamental component is rewarding ourselves for identifying problems and then fixing them. Very often we find ourselves trapped in repetitive cyclical patterns. We don’t see the type of results we want fast enough, so we return to the very bad habits that caused us to be in the place we are unhappy with. This happens all the time with people trying to diet, but can happen in business or romance or any area of life. Even when we are capable of identifying these problematic behaviors or mindsets, identification alone is often not enough to create the necessary change. To help us achieve change we must reward ourselves not only for identifying the problem, but also for creating and implementing solutions, or for engaging in the practice of continuous improvement.
Finally, a third fundamental component is to reduce waste, or do more with less. Kaizen isn’t just about improvement, but efficiency. If it takes you an hour to do everything in the gym, but you could get the same results in only forty five minutes or thirty that’s a lot of time and energy that is being wasted. Doing more with less is the fundamental starting point of kaizen and one of the driving forces of the philosophy.
Creating long lasting sustainable change in life is possible, but it requires a desire not just to change, but to engage in small, continuous improvement and to find satisfaction in the process as a means in of itself rather than as a means to a particular end.