philosophy

In Pursuit of Kaizen

“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.

Advertisements

Why the Statement, “god is great,” is Inherently Problematic

As a philosophical naturalist it should come as no surprise that I believe all gods are as imaginary as leprechauns or the Easter Bunny, and as a result I don’t agree that “god is great.” But it isn’t my personal disbelief in supernatural causation that gives rise to the problems inherent in the statement, “god is great.”

Instead this particular statement is inherently problematic for a number of reasons, such as: that it’s vague and meaningless; it fails to resolve several philosophical dilemmas surrounding the question of whether a god exists; and it is ultimately divisive to the point of creating conflicts, violence, and oppression.

Now i’m not naive enough to believe it’s possible to refute the possibility a god exists in a seventeen hundred word blog post. I’m just not that convincing, but by highlighting a few of the inherent problems maybe it will cause a few readers to at least pause and think before asserting, “god is great.”

1. Vagueness:

The word god is a common noun, which is why the word shouldn’t be capitalized unless it’s at the beginning of a sentence. While a lot of monotheist name their god, “God,” this in effect is the same as naming your dog, “Dog.” Just because you use the common noun as a proper noun, does not mean that there is only one god, or that everyone who believes in a god believes in the same god you do. Just as me naming my dog, “Dog,” does not make it the only dog or mean that everyone that uses the term dog is referring to my particular dog every time they say the word dog.

Throughout history humans have imagined a myriad of different mutually exclusive gods, many of whom have been named “God,” or declared to be the only god. I would even go as far as to say that every person who believes in god(s) has their own personal concept of what they mean when they use the term god. Thus everyone who believes in a god, believes in their own unique god, even where the believer ascribes to a larger religion, with fixed definitions of its god(s).

This unique god may be compatible with other gods, but by nature a personal god can’t be compatible with every possible variation of god. For instance Yahweh and Jesus, while believed to be the same god by Christians, are in fact mutually exclusive concepts of god. This is why observant Jews don’t believe Jesus is a god, because as of about 800 BCE, religious Jews as a whole began to believe their war god Yahweh was the exclusive and only god.

Thus the term, “god is great,” is vague as to which god is being referred to and why it is great, which means the statement without alternative context can be read as, “My, god, which I name ‘God’ is great merely because it is my god.”

This tells us nothing about whether a god does indeed exist, what the definition of that god is or how we are to determine whether the god in question is indeed great, as there is no manner to determine by what standards greatness is to be judged.

2. Euthyphro’s Dilemma:

Much like Admiral Akbar in Return of the Jedi, every time I hear this statement I feel like saying, “it’s a trap!” This is because the statement, “god is great,” without context falls into a form of the logical dilemma first penned by Plato, and supposedly articulated by Socrates.

Essentially Euthyphro’s Dilemma breaks down into the question, is a god great, “just because?” Or is there an outside standard by which we can judge whether or not a god is indeed great? The word great itself creates problems as in English it generally refers to physical size, or largeness, but it is most often used in the context of this statement as a synonym for goodness.

a. Just Because:

If a god is great, “just because,” that means that the word god becomes a synonym for great, rendering it a meaningless statement premised upon un-proven and debatable presuppositions. Essentially, the statement becomes the same thing as saying, “water is H2O.”  Both statements are redundant as neither establishes anything meaningful about the other and merely reduces the words to synonyms, without proving the existence of the god in question, or defining what it means to for that god to be good or great.

Where a god is ontologically the same as goodness then goodness or greatness becomes arbitrary, and whatever the god chooses to do is defined as good. If a god is thought responsible for all events and life on earth, then one would have to say the creation of Hitler, or Stalin and the resulting deaths of millions from their actions were great, because they were both acts of god. Ultimately this reduces the statement either to a tautology, or to a vague and subjective value statement, which is meaningless.

But while this may appeal to some theists, few would respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the response, “I’m god,” indicating that most believers at least implicitly understand the problems of reducing god to a synonym for goodness or greatness.

b. Objective Standard:

If an objective standard for judging greatness, or goodness exists, then for a god to be great it must not only meet the objective standard, but the standard must exist irrespective of whether a given god exists.

Thus where an objective standard of goodness exists separate and independent of a god’s will there is something over which a god is not sovereign, and the actions of the god in question are restricted to only that which meets the objective definition of goodness or greatness, otherwise it is an untrue statement. This means for the statement to be true a god that is good lacks free will and thus is not able to act in a manner which is anything, but great or good.

Which tells us nothing about what it means to be objectively good, other than that a god who is great by an objective standard is limited from acting in a manner other than in a manner the unestablished standard dictates. Again essentially reducing the statement to little more than a vague tautology, which tells us nothing.

3. Dilemma of Evil:

The statement “god is great,” seems to ignore the problem that in this world there exists things that we describe as evil, as in the battle of good versus evil. If a god is to be described as good or great then there must exist something that is not just the absence of goodness or greatness, but the opposite of good or great, that which we call evil.

Often misattributed to Epicurus, the basic formulation of this problem essentially reads:

Is a god willing to prevent evil, but not able?

Then it is not omnipotent.

Is a god able to prevent evil, but not willing?

Then it is malevolent.

Is a god both willing and able?

Then whence cometh evil?

Is a god neither willing nor able?

Then why call it a god?

For a god to be ontologically good or great, it can’t be responsible for evil, which means there must be at least one other independent non-created being (a god) of equal power, or some other type of supernatural causation responsible for what we call evil.

If there is an objective standard the god in question can only be great if its actions meet that standard, meaning a god is not omnipotent and therefore unable to prevent evil, because the god is limited to only doing that which meets the objective standard of goodness or greatness. This ultimately means worship of that god is irrelevant, because regardless of praise or declaration the god may only do that which is good or great, and is unable to prevent evil.

Either way you cut it, the statement “god is great,” becomes problematic if not down right meaningless when viewed against the dilemma of evil.

4. Inherent Divisiveness of the Statement:

While the philosophical dilemmas and general vagueness of the statement may not be sufficient for most theists to give up using this statement, or convince someone that god(s) don’t exist, it is the effect the statement has on others that should at least give one pause before saying this in mixed company.

The statement, “god is great,” is an inherently divisive statement, because it translates into the statement, “My god, who I name ‘God’ is great, because it is my god.” Since there is not just one god, but an infinite number of possible gods, many of whom are mutually exclusive and none of which is established to be empirically true, the statement inherently creates disagreements and conflict between people.

Anyone, who has a different definition of god from the speaker, especially a mutually exclusive one will by necessity disagree with the speaker. As a result result the listener will either challenge the speaker’s strongly held beliefs, or suffer in silence in an attempt to avoid causing offense or be rejected by the speaker.

Disagreement wouldn’t be a problem if this conflict remained in the theoretical world of logic and philosophy. But unfortunately for us humans, our disagreements and differences of belief very frequently turn into violence and coercion.

As a result this statement can be the cause of a great deal of misery. Take for example a suicide bomber, who believes his or her god is so great that it leads the believer to kill themselves and others for disagreeing with the belief that their personal god is great.

It is remarkable how frail and weak people’s gods are that they constantly require humans to commit acts of violence and brutality against those who disbelieve, or refuse to accept the authority of the self appointed mouth pieces of a particular god. While in secular countries, like the United States of America, this disagreement generally remains an endlessly ongoing shouting match, in countries where one generalized god concept has a monopoly on force, it can cause the denial of the fundamental freedom to believe as our consciouses dictates as well as violent oppression against minority beliefs.

In fact in at least thirteen countries it is illegal and punishable by incarceration or corporal punishment to deny that a particular god concept, named “God,” is great. While some theist might think this a nifty idea when their general god is the one receiving state sponsorship, they are just as quick to scream persecution when the shoe is on the other foot.

So while one needn’t give up the belief in a god because of the problems inherent in the statement, “god is great,” it would be better for us all if we moved away from endlessly proclaiming such a divisive and meaningless statements as, “god is great.”