Occasionally on Facebook I get to point out that anything I post without comment is likely something I intend to read later because it strikes me as potentially interesting. These posts often result in comments, which then remind me that I meant to read the thing. It’s a way of outsourcing a reminder to read something to my friends and family. But it does lead to the occasional fun when somebody gets all bent of shape and admonishes me to stop deceiving the public with my pernicious lies or whatever.
I got some feedback along those lines for linking to this piece: A Japanese technique for overcoming laziness.
I’m interested in Kaizen (with a capital K) because I used to manage the total quality program for the product engineering and development group within the telecom company where I was employed. In the 1980′s and early 90′s, many American companies discovered and began implementing Japanese management practices in an effort to become competitive. The irony is that one of the pillars of those practices was the statistical quality control introduced into Japan by the U.S. after the war. W. Edwards Deming was an American; interesting that the prize named after him is awarded in Japan!
One of the early adopters of statistical process control was Toyota, whose management saw an immediate fit with their continuous, incremental, team-based production improvement process — what they called their “kaizen” process. It was built on simple principles geared to foster continuous improvement.
Toyota didn’t invent that word. It’s an everyday Japanese word that means “change for the better” or more simply “improvement.” On its own, it doesn’t mean continuous improvement or working in teams or practicing statistical process control or spending a minute every day on something — which is apparently what the confused author of the piece linked above seems to think — or any of the rest of that stuff. However, it has become associated with those things in the minds of many western managers and consultants who understand Kaizen (with a capital K) to be a Japanese management philosophy. Books by Masaaki Imai — who did not “invent” Kaizen, as the linked piece erroneously states — and others have contributed heavily to this understanding of what Kaizen is.
I haven’t worked in quality management for many years now, but the idea of continuous improvement has stuck with me. I come up with elaborate formulations like The Human Imperative to try to explain why this principle is so important. But I have always loved the elegant simplicity of Kaizen.
For all its flaws, the piece linked provides some pretty good advice. Spend one minute, every day at the same time, trying to work on one area of potential improvement. For example, the author of the linked piece might work on his or her research / fact-checking processes. I would add that it doesn’t have to be a minute, and you don’t have to just work on one thing, and you don’t need to do it at the same time every day.
And, for that matter, you don’t have to call it Kaizen. But you can if you want to. As long as you are talking about making something better, that word works.