The Question

Kaizen Is the 5-Step Philosophy of Continuous Improvement

Let's say you're working on a greeting card assembly line. First, you stamp down the puppy cartoon on the outside, then you flip it over and stamp the punchline on the inside. Then you flip it over again, fold it, and call it done. But wait ... you're flipping the paper over twice. That's a step you don't have to take. When you cut it out, you make the whole process a tiny bit more efficient. This is kaizen: an incremental self-improvement philosophy that makes you better bit by bit.

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Changing for the Better

In Japanese, kaizen just means "improvement," spelled using the characters for "good" and "change." In that sense, it's not so much a philosophy as it is a goal. Additionally, in the traditional definition of the word, there is no connotation of ongoing transformation or continual improvement. That additional meaning to the concept of kaizen is more a product of Japanese manufacturing techniques being described by Westerners — what the Japanese saw as the basic duty of every worker to improve the process wherever possible was cast through American eyes as a secret guiding principle that kept the Japanese car industry on top.

Japanese characters for Kaizen.

This new, more philosophical sense of kaizen was (in time) accepted into the Japanese lexicon, but instead of being spelled with the meaningful characters for "kai" and "zen," it was spelled in the phonetic katakana alphabet, which is used to designate foreign words. Though it should be used as more of a touchstone to determine best practices, kaizen could be described as an ongoing process with the following steps:

  1. Standardize. Come up with a process.
  2. Measure. Quantify exactly how good that process is.
  3. Compare. Make sure your process is meeting your needs.
  4. Innovate. Find and remove redundancy and waste.
  5. Standardize. Come up with a better process based on what you've learned.
  6. Repeat. Do it all over again.

Kaizen and the Art of Toyota Production

There's one story that's often called upon to exemplify the work philosophy of kaizen. The Toyota Production System is the stuff of legends in certain circles — an ever-improving juggernaut that eliminates waste at every level. The story goes that a group of American executives went to visit the Toyota line and see exactly how they could keep up such a high production rate and low error rate. What they saw blew their minds.

At the Toyota plant, any worker could stop production at any time in order to correct an error or suggest an improvement. The American companies, by contrast, had stuck to a never-stop-the-line philosophy that had to correct all errors later or chalk the ruined cars up to waste. By nipping errors and inefficiency in the bud, every worker played a role in improving the entire company. It's an inspiring story, and one that's easy to apply to our day-to-day lives.

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For a deeper dive into this topic, check out "One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way" by Robert Maurer Ph.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 28, 2017

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