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K is for Kaizen

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

Habits don’t change in a day, but 1% a day makes every habit work.”

James Altucher

What does ‘Kaizen’ mean?

Kaizen (改善) is a compound of two Japanese words ‘kai’ and ‘zen’. ‘Kai’ refers to ‘change’ and 'Zen’ meaning ‘to become better’ is related to a school of Buddhism that focuses on simplicity, living in the present and removing extraneous distractions. Kaizen takes Zen a step further and is a challenge to look for ways to improve in each and every moment of our lives. Taken together Kaizen has become to mean ‘continuous improvement’.

How did the concept of Kaizen originate?

The concept of Kaizen evolved after WW2, at the Toyota car company, and was developed in part as a response to American productivity and management consultants (e.g. W. Edwards Deming) as a way to improve products, reduce manufacturing waste, boost productivity and encourage worker purpose and accountability.

The Deming cycle for example is based on the acronym PDCA

Plan (develop a hypothesis),

Do (run an experiment),

Check (evaluate results) and

Act (refine the experiment and start a new cycle.)

Although Kaizen was originally created as a philosophy/action plan in the manufacturing industry, the notion of continuing improvement can be applied to all aspects of our lives -personal, home, relationships and at work.

Kaizen is about acting consistently and with intention

It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best

W. Edwards Deming.

The Principles of Kaizen

Kaizen has 10 principles at the core of its philosophy which can be applied to all aspects of our lives:

· Let go of assumptions. Make sure you base your decisions on facts rather than opinions.

· Be proactive about solving problems. Don’t waste time making excuses but focus on finding solutions.

· Don’t accept the status quo, ask questions instead i.e. always question tradition and, when necessary, discard the old to make way for the new.

· Let go of perfectionism but instead adopt an attitude of adaptive change.

· Look for solutions as you find mistakes. Start making improvements right away, even if you don’t yet have all the answers

· Create an environment in which everyone feels involved and empowered to contribute.

Real change is inclusive of all.

· Don’t accept situations or problems at value; instead, ask “why” at least five times to get to the root cause.

· Acquire wisdom by gathering information and opinions from multiple sources not just relying on one expert.

· Find low-cost, small improvements through creativity i.e. look for simple inexpensive solutions to fix a problem before rushing to spend money.

· Strive for continuous improvement. It is always possible for things to get better no matter how good or bad they are now

Kaizen in our personal lives

True life is lived when tiny changes occur” Leo Tolstoy

We often underestimate the importance of making small improvements on a daily basis to get the results we require; convincing ourselves that in order to achieve a massive success we need to take massive action, but regular, tiny improvements can make a massive difference over time. Just like the saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ you won’t either.

According to James Clear (author of Atomic Habits)

if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. (1.01 ^ 365= 37.78) Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. (0.99 ^ 365= 0.03) What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.”

In the beginning, you won’t notice much difference between people making choices that are 1 % better or 1 % worse, but as time goes on, these small improvements or declines will stack up until suddenly you will notice a large gap between the people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don't. Most of the significant things in life aren't stand-alone events that lead to success or de-rail us, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse.

(NB If you do 1% more than someone else every day for a year, you will still just have done 1% more than the other person after 365 days, however, if you improve over someone else by 1% every day for a year, you will have exceeded the other person by approximately 3800% (compound interest). explaining why people who constantly focus on improving rather than optimizing on their existing skills are more successful in the long run).

Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day”. Jim Rohn

To feel the positive effect of Kaizen in our personal lives we need to develop and maintain high standards in our lives, accept responsibility for our lives and acquire and build self-discipline with regards to our thoughts and actions and become good housekeepers of the resources that we have available to us whether it is time, money or our relationships practising ‘Muda’ (another Japanese word that means ‘elimination where necessary’) i.e. of anything that doesn’t add value to our lives and living a life more simply.

Mastering our habits is more important than achieving a certain outcome as habits are the ‘compound interest’ of self-improvement. It doesn’t take much to do something every day, but it also doesn’t take much to NOT do something and the difference between the two is a slippery slope. To look at this from another perspective, assuming you sleep for 8 hours and are awake for 16 that’s 16 hours (or 960 minutes) of opportunity for you to do something concrete to add positive improvements to your life!

Improve a little each day. It compounds. When 1% compounds every day, it doubles every 72 days, not every 100 days. Compounding tiny excellence is what creates big excellence.” James Altucher

By practising Kaizen, we can improve all dimensions of our quality of life; not only our physical but our psychological- behavioural dimensions too.

It can represent a means to achieve a balanced life (Buddhism) with a purpose ‘telos’ and an individual vision , distancing people from the extremes of daily life (bad habits)” MFS Barraza, SM Dahlgaard-Park, J Ramis-Pujol (see full study below)

Kaizen at home

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint Exupery

As well as the 10 principles above, Kaizen also has a general framework known as the 5 S’s framework that focuses on creating organization, cleanliness and visual order to improve profitability and efficiency in a standardized way in the workplace but this can also be directly applied to the home environment. The 5 S’s are as follows:

Seiri (meaning to sort/organize). This is similar to the Marie Kondo idea of that states that you should possess only what has a purpose and sparks your joy so you are only left with what is necessary. Seiri is about sorting through all the items in a location and removing all unnecessary items from the location.

Seiton (meaning to straighten/create orderliness) it is concerned with being ready by arranging things in a way that makes sense and are easy to access which promotes efficient workflow and eliminates wasting time and energy looking for things!

Seiso (meaning to make everything shiny clean) is as it implies, you should keep your home environment clean, shiny and tidy and by doing so you can spot potential problems more quickly.

Seiketsu (meaning purity and focuses on maintaining cleanliness and perpetual cleaning) Seiketsu is concerned with standardizing the sanitising process itself which should be systematized best practice

Shitsuke (is the fifth and final step of the 5S framework meaning "sustain" or "sustained discipline”). i.e. Improvement is not a hit and miss process we need to keep going and repeat processes to create good habits on an ongoing basis to improve our environment, our relationships and our own personal development.

Kaizen in our relationships/social lives

When it comes to relationships, the effectiveness of Kaizen is reliant on the work each individual person is prepared to put in. Both close relationships and everyday social interactions can be improved in multiple small ways. Our body language, mannerisms and gestures can set the tone and quality for our interactions, both present and future. Subtle differences in the language we employ will alter the way other people feel and react, whether we’re talking directly to them in person or via the phone or online.

Parenting efficiently is increasingly important in a society where the majority of mothers and fathers with under age children have to work. To enable us to create a better work-life balance and spend more time doing things we enjoy with the people we love we need to become more efficient by eliminating all possible wasteful activities in both spheres e.g. unnecessary things that drain our time and energy, i e. watching 30 minutes less television per day can give you back 3.5 hours of time per week to do something better which is equivalent to 182 hours a year i.e. 7 + days of our life.

Our habitual behaviour governs our relationships with others. It is always possible to improve our relationships by employing the 10 principles of Kaizen. When we identify areas that are problematic or that could be better still, then we need to be consistent about making small changes to our habits which will lead to bigger changes in our patterns of behaviour. Taking this principle it is clear that real change will only happen if all parties in the relationship feel involved in the process, want there to be change and are prepared to put in individual effort to make it so. It is not really about the ‘problem’ or ‘apportioning blame’, the focus is on looking for solutions together to improve a relationship for everyone in it.

Kaizen at work

When applied to the workplace Kaizen means continuing improvement involving everyone — managers and workers alikeMasaaki

Central to the practice of Kaizen in the workplace is teamwork, personal discipline, improved morale, quality circles and a sense of responsibility and involvement and suggestions for improvement.

(See the various links below)

Kaizen is about flow and creating big changes through consistent, small, incremental steps. i.e. changing a lot, little by little, moment by moment; Each micro-improvement to our lives if practised regularly will bring about consistent, continual improvements to all aspects of our lives.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together

Vincent Van Gogh

Some questions to think about/or discuss below:

Are you going to be the person who improves 1% each day, or the one who gets worse each day? (NB staying the same is not an option as every day you don’t get better, you simply get worse.)

What small change can I determine to make here and now to contribute towards creating a better life for me and others later? i.e. What can I do now that my future self will thank me for?

What improvement have you chosen in your personal life?

What improvement have you chosen in your home life?

What improvement have you chosen in your relationships?

What improvement have you chosen in your work life/ continuing education?

Why not remind yourself about some of the principles about taking effective action in the ‘A is for Action’ blog post? ( )

Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler” Albert Einstein

If you want to explore this subject further, here are a few links to get you started:

Rob Dial Podcast no 831

The largest room in the world is the room for improvement” Unknown

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1 Comment

Nov 27, 2020

I have never heard of 'Kaizen'. I found the subject really interesting and thought provoking!

In my personal life, and especially since the pandemic started, I have decided to improve my life by practising mindfulness and listening to my body more often. Also I have learnt to face fear and appreciate the small things in life.

Regarding relationships I want to be the friend that I would like to have! I have become more aware of how a friendship makes me feel. I want to be myself around a friend, how they make me feel and do I feel better after chatting or spending time with them.

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