Why You Need to Harness the Kaizen Philosophy

Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy to improve productivity

The Japanese word “Kaizen” translates to “change for the better,” but the full meaning has a deeper significance than the definition suggests. This philosophy began in Japanese factories to help companies achieve maximum efficiency and productivity by involving workers on all levels. This goal of continuous improvement has its uses for everyone, whether they’re part of the world’s largest organizations or simply trying to improve on a personal level.

The Meaning of Kaizen

So what exactly is Kaizen? It’s the ongoing process of making incremental yet regular improvements. What makes it different from other management techniques is that it’s truly a bottom-up process. Workers on all levels implement changes designed to make life easier.

Workers are encouraged to put their own time and money saving improvements into action. Management keeps an open mind and takes suggestions seriously instead of letting their ego or stubbornness get in the way of progress. These changes are essentially life hacks made to scale.

A series of small improvements taken as a whole can revolutionize how a company is run over time. Kaizen can also lead to dramatic personal growth if effectively harnessed.

Kaizen in Action

The shining example of Kaizen’s potential can be seen within the automotive industry. It’s hard to believe it now, but the Japanese auto industry was once considering something of a joke due to the poor quality of its vehicles. America had long dominated the auto industry and saw no reason to worry about new competition from Japan.

Things soon changed and Japanese companies caught up their long-established American rivals partly due to Kaizen. The philosophy is central to Toyota’s business model, and allowing this input and helped turn their factories into a model of efficiency. As documented in an episode of This American Life, Toyota rewarded factory workers who implemented changes that saved money.

Toyota’s small steps sound like no-brainers, but nobody else was doing them at the time. There were mats and cushions to make the workers more comfortable while on the job. Hanging shelves carried necessary parts and tools down the production line, so workers could get the job done without backtracking. The car-building process was streamlined to the minimum amount of steps needed. This improved quality and saved time, allowing Toyota to put out cars faster and with fewer problems than competitors.

Kaizen doesn’t sound particularly radical, but many slower companies are stuck in their ways and never really encouraged to innovate. There is a certain way of doing things, and that’s just the way things were supposed to be. This outdated way of thinking is often bad news for companies trying to remain competitive. On a personal level, this sort of stubbornness and refusal to adapt is how the bad habits that hold back our potential are formed.

The Peril of Stubbornness

As Toyota rose, American auto manufacturers failed to compete. General Motors simply couldn’t keep up with the rise of nimble competitors.  GM even had the opportunity to improve when they partnered with the upstart Toyota in 1984 to jointly operate a U.S. factory using the Kaizen philosophy.

The results in this experimental factory were promising, but upper management didn’t realize the significance of such Kaizen. Despite the factory’s success, GM continued in its inefficient ways in most factories and eventually needed a multi-billion dollar government bailout to stay afloat in 2009.

Those incremental changes that Kaizen produces could have, over time, reversed GM’s fortunes if embraced company-wide. Stubbornness, however, lead to GM’s downfall.

Improving Yourself

The idea of Kaizen has spread throughout the world to a variety of sectors and industries. Banks have used it to make it easier to open a checking account and the government of India has used it to streamline its mammoth bureaucracy. While Kaizen is associated with large teams and big projects, it’s just as useful on a personal level.

It’s easy to stick with habits that are familiar even when they might not be the most efficient use of your time. To make continuous improvement, it’s necessary to take a step back and think about how to improve parts of your daily routine. This requires some introspection and self-discipline, yet taking a critical look at your life is the best way to find improvement.

If you’re finding yourself regularly running late to appointments or failing to meet the expectations of your managers, Kaizen helps you deconstruct your process and find out which steps need to be improved. You can eliminate unnecessary habits to be more agile and adaptable to whatever challenges you’re dealing with.

Even if your company doesn’t necessarily embrace Kaizen, you can practice it yourself to improve both your personal life and work habits.  There’s no resting on your laurels or getting dead set in your ways with Kaizen.  Small and constant changes lead to big improvements over time.

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