There are many Japanese concepts that can expand our Western ways of thinking. Wabi-sabi tells us about the beauty of imperfection, ma makes us conscious of the space between things, and ichi-go ichi-e reminds us to value the transience of every moment. Let’s expand that list with another fascinating concept from the Far East. There’s a Japanese philosophy that can help us understand how to do better work, and it’s called kaizen.
Kaizen and the Toyota Way
The concept of kaizen originated in post-war Japan. At that time, Toyota set out to optimize its production processes. To do this, the company designed a set of principles to guide their business. These principles are known as the Toyota Way.
Amongst these principles are things like just-in-time production, prioritizing long-term ideals over short-term goals, and always fixing problems at the root. In total, there’s a set of 12 principles. According to Toyota, their philosophy is not about cars, but about people, respect, and efficiency.
Kaizen is the first principle of the Toyota Way. Literally, kai means ‘change,’ and zen means ‘good.’ Together, the two characters are usually translated as ‘improvement.’
In Toyota’s philosophy, employees are encouraged to look for things that can be improved on a daily basis. In practice, this means that Toyota employees have the autonomy to stop the entire production line when they notice a complication. The cost of this downtime is compensated by the long-term gains of a production system with fewer errors.
The two types of kaizen
Improvements come in many shapes and sizes. Some changes can be implemented within a day, while others might take months to complete. The philosophy of kaizen is that even the smallest improvements can make a difference. That’s why paying attention to possibilities for positive change is essential. There are two ways to do so.
The first type of kaizen focuses on ‘process.’ Every job features a number of recurring processes. These are things you can optimize. Every time you do so, you become a little more efficient.
Let’s say you’re a copywriter and part of that job is writing blogs. Something you can do to optimize that process is to create an outline before you start writing. Another fix you could implement is postponing any grammar corrections until the final stage of writing. This way, you’ll prevent spending too much time on sentences that may not make the final cut. If you write ten blogs a month, small improvements like these will eventually add up, saving you time and effort.
The second type of kaizen focuses on ‘flow.’ This involves the way information and materials flow within your organization. Kaizen means being mindful of how you can streamline these flows.
If your work involves many project handovers, an example of flow kaizen could be the introduction of standardized documentation to reduce errors during these transfers. It’s also possible to think bigger. On a company level, it could mean rethinking how you organize your teams.
As these particular improvements are often concerned with interactions between people, flow kaizen is a team effort. Your colleagues might have suggestions about how you can make their work easier. Likewise, what could others do to help you work more efficiently? To improve flow, communication is key.
If your organization is a machine, process kaizen is the oil that lets individual cogs run more smoothly. Flow kaizen optimizes the position of cogs in relation to each other, meaning less energy is lost in the transfer between different cogs. For optimal results, both process and flow need attention. Together, these two types of improvement will make your machine generate more output with less energy.
How Fujifilm uses kaizen to win customer loyalty
Fujifilm, a Japanese camera manufacturer, uses kaizen in its approach to firmware updates. The company is known to release frequent updates, even for cameras that have already been replaced by newer models. Fujifilm also introduces new features through its firmware updates, while most other camera manufacturers use such features to make their latest camera models more exclusive. Instead, Fujifilm chooses to extend the longevity of its products.
Here’s how Fujifilm makes sense of its generous firmware habits: “It’s all part of our philosophy of kaizen to continually improve our products and hope that our users get plenty of joy out of their product before they feel they need to upgrade.”
Of course, Fujifilm is not just adopting this mindset because it brings their costumers joy. It also keeps consumers loyal to their brand.
Why everyone benefits from kaizen
The example from Fujifilm shows that embracing a philosophy of continuous improvement can benefit an organization in multiple ways.
First of all, and perhaps most obviously, the bottom line benefits. Over an extended period, small improvements, reduced error rates, and quicker handovers can add up to a lot of saved time. Time is money, so kaizen means profit.
Second, customers benefit. Continuous improvement results in products that are better, safer, and cheaper. Japanese cars are known to be extremely reliable, and kaizen is one of the reasons why.
Finally, employees benefit. A company culture that embraces kaizen is a culture that stimulates responsibility all the way from the boardroom to the factory floor. If employees feel they have the power to improve the way their company works, they’ll be more motivated and thus do better work.
Implement kaizen in your own work
Trying to improve how you work seems like a no-brainer, but actually doing so takes dedication. Above all, kaizen is a mindset. It reminds us not to settle for ‘good enough’ and to keep looking for things that could make a difference.
These tips will help you make kaizen part of your routine:
- Keep optimizing your own processes. Every week, aim to improve one part of your workflow.
- Pay attention to what happens in the rest of your office. Ask others how you can make their work easier.
- Create recurring opportunities to share insights about possible improvements. Why not add a kaizen section to one of your weekly meetings?
- Don’t just make observations. Act upon them.
It’s as simple as that. Kaizen is about getting better at what you do by paying attention to how you do it. Keep iterating long enough and your workflow might eventually become as steady as a Japanese car factory.