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Get Better at Getting Better: The Japanese Philosophy of Kaizen (改善 / かいぜん) Can Reinvent Your Daily Routine

Apr 17 2020 - Blog

There’s this philosophy observed by many Japanese called kaizen (改善 / かいぜん). Kaizen is based on the idea that small, ongoing positive changes can reap major improvements.

Kaizen as a Mindset

More often than not, the Japanese cultural word kaizen becomes lost in translation. See, in order to fully appreciate the meaning behind this philosophy, one must not only learn but experience this phenomenon. Only then would one be able to develop a profound understanding of how the Japanese think and function in their daily lives.

Let’s take a closer look at the kanji (Japanese characters) for kaizen: 改善. The former “kai” refers to “change”. If we divide the character for “kai” into two parts, the left part refers to “self” and the right part is a picture of a person’s back after being whipped. The latter character “zen” refers to goodness or change for the better.

Truly Understanding the Word “Kaizen”

One does not simply “understand” the cultural connotations of kaizen, but rather “feels” and “senses” its presence in modern-day Japanese living. In Japan, an entity or product with kaizen is like a bowl of rice with miso soup — one simply flourishes by enhancing the other.

Kaizen in Business

Kaizen broadly translates to “improvement”. But when applied to business it is defined as  continuous engagement in activities that improve all functions. No matter what level you are at professionally, repletion, attention to detail and care are the antecedents to efficiency. 

Kaizen also teaches you to appreciate the value in even the smallest amount of improvement. An improvement that isn’t evaluated by its degree is an incentivizing routine. Says legendary sushi master Ono Jiro, “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.”

What we put in our body isn’t the only factor that impacts our mental well-being. Our surroundings also play a major role. Because space is so limited in Japan, its citizens exercise extra prudence when determining what they should and should not keep. This makes for generally tidier living quarters. Even corporations make a point to dispose of all unnecessary things. Freeing up space liberates the mind and can provide a huge boost in productivity.

Ten Principles of Kaizen

Executing kaizen requires us to enable the right mindset throughout our company. The ten principles of kaizen are commonly referenced as core to the philosophy. They are:

  1. Let go of assumptions.
  2. Be proactive about solving problems.
  3. Don't accept the status quo.
  4. Let go of perfectionism and take an attitude of iterative, adaptive change.
  5. Look for solutions as you find mistakes.
  6. Create an environment in which everyone feels empowered to contribute.
  7. Don't accept the obvious issue; instead, ask "why" five times to get to the root cause.
  8. Cull information and opinions from multiple people.
  9. Use creativity to find low-cost, small improvements.
  10. Never stop improving.

The Result of Adopting Kaizen Philosophy

Kaizen is the alternative to the feelings of defeat and failure we experience after setting overly ambitious resolutions or goals, only to abandon them a few weeks later. And while kaizen won’t change your life overnight, it can set significant change into motion — bit by bit.

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