“Today better than yesterday, tomorrow better than today”, that is the epitome of kaizen, a work method and life philosophy that is committed to continuous improvement. Instead of promising instant and miraculous changes that usually vanish as quickly as they appeared, the kaizen method proposes to take one step at a time, so as not to get overwhelmed and consolidate the habits that can really lead us to achieve our goals.
Kaizen, its meaning and origin
The word kaizen (改善) is composed of the kanji characters that mean: change or the action of making amends and good or beneficial. Therefore, etymologically the meaning of kaizen is any positive change that implies an improvement, be it large or small.
However, it was American entrepreneurs who developed the kaizen method, adding the current meaning to the word: continuous improvement. In the 1950s, after World War II, the United States had a geopolitical interest in Japan’s rapid economic recovery, so they sent business and academic figures to push Japan’s development.
They implemented a plan that was already being tested in US companies based on small, continuous improvements to existing plants to modernize factories and increase their efficiency since there was neither time nor resources to implement large and expensive changes. This system soon became a business philosophy by merging with the Japanese way of doing things.
The combination of Western rationality and the ancient Japanese culture gave rise to the kaizen method, which allowed the industry of the Japanese country to position itself among the first in the world. As a result, in the 1980s the kaizen method began to spread to other nations. Today we can even talk about a personal kaizen.
The kaizen method in personal life is also based on two essential concepts: gradualness and continuity. It encourages us to take small steps at a time, breaking big goals down into small tasks that we can better tackle without getting too overwhelmed.
It also tells us that these steps must be systematic; that is, we must advance a little each day. The kaizen philosophy is based on perseverance. It takes up Lao Tzu’s idea that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step” and takes it by stating that every journey is made up of small steps. We just have to make sure we give them.
What benefits does personal kaizen bring?
The kaizen method encourages us not to let a single day go by without improving something in our life, however small it may seem, because step by step we will achieve great things and get closer and closer to our goal. We don’t have to worry so much about reaching our destination, but only about making progress every day as much as we can.
In fact, research conducted at the Universidad de las Americas Puebla and Lund University found that people who applied the kaizen method to improve their quality of life and eliminate bad habits ended up developing an “harmony between mind and body” very similar to that achieved with other Buddhist practices. This is because kaizen philosophy encourages us to always look within to push ourselves only as far as we feel comfortable enough, while creating a sense of empowerment.
1. It helps us overcome the initial blockage. On many occasions, when we set ourselves big goals, the immensity of the task ahead of us can block us. In those cases, we make excuses to stay in our comfort zone, just because we are scared of the effort and commitment that our goal demands. The kaizen philosophy in personal life encourages us to take the first steps to overcome that initial resistance that drastic transformations or large projects entail.
2. Reduce psychological pressure. By taking small steps at a time, the kaizen philosophy reduces the negative emotions that are often associated with big changes or challenging projects. It prevents us from getting too overwhelmed, from feeling overwhelmed by tasks or exhausted by the effort. Therefore, the kaizen method reduces psychological stress and helps us maintain a more positive attitude along the way, which also decreases the risk of giving up on our goals.
3. Avoid procrastination. Procrastination is one of the most bitter enemies of productivity and change. In fact, we tend to procrastinate when the tasks ahead of us seem too difficult, tedious or long. Personal kaizen encourages us to break those tasks down into smaller actions that we can better manage so we don’t feel overwhelmed, so there’s no room for procrastination.
4. Improve quality. Going step by step allows us to check the results. So we can correct the errors before it is too late. We can also pay more attention to each task to perfect it every day. Therefore, applying the kaizen method in personal life also helps us improve the quality of what we do, whether it is an exercise routine or a plan to improve our communication skills.
5. It generates permanent results. Habits are the basis of any transformation that we intend to maintain over time. Because kaizen encourages us to take small steps at a time, it allows habits to take hold, leading to permanent transformation. In fact, small systematic changes have a great impact on our lives, allowing us to maintain healthier habits in the long term, without falling into the dreaded rebound effect.
How to apply personal kaizen to everyday life?
The kaizen method is a good alternative when we know what we want to achieve, but the road seems too long or we are not clear about all the intermediate steps. In fact, it is recommended when we feel overwhelmed by the size or complexity of a project or when we have gotten stuck or have started to procrastinate. It is also a viable method when we have lost strength or motivation halfway or if we want to develop a long-term habit.
To apply it, we must keep in mind that instead of making radical changes overnight, we must start with small daily improvements. We just have to focus on improving or advancing 1% every day. At first, the changes seem inconsequential, but little by little we will begin to notice improvements and over time we will experience profound positive changes.
Therefore, we must first ask ourselves:
1. What results do we want to achieve? It is about being clear about our goal, the point we want to reach, what motivates and excites us.
2. What habits will help us achieve those results? The key is to detect the actions that we must automate to achieve our objective. Preferably starting with small, doable steps that aren’t too intimidating.
3. What results are we achieving? Continuous improvement implies being able to become aware of what we are doing well and what we must change, following up on the results we are achieving along the way.
4. What actions should we correct? Personal kaizen also involves making adjustments. We must assess which habits can be optimized or corrected to achieve the goal or improve the results.
It is also essential to ensure that our environment facilitates continuous improvement. In fact, the kaizen philosophy is not only about new habits but also about the elimination of everything superfluous that consumes time uselessly. Therefore, if we want to make room in our lives for new projects and goals, we must also get rid of tasks that are not significant. It’s about rearranging our priorities.
Last but not least, we must remember that personal kaizen is based on three elements: the goal that motivates us, the growth mindset and willpower. Therefore, we need to make sure that we determine the rate at which we want to apply the changes and maintain it. You have to be able to maintain discipline and commit to that process of continuous improvement.
For example, if our goal is to overcome the fear of public speaking, we must ask ourselves what steps will allow us to achieve that goal. We may need to enlist the help of a psychologist or we may need to do more research on the problem to understand its origin and the best way to address it. In that case, we can consider spending 15 minutes a day to get informed. In a second stage, we can start the practical exercises. In this way, gradually and without exposing ourselves to unnecessary stress, we will lose our fear of speaking in front of an audience.
The key is to implement changes so small that it is impossible for us to fail or procrastinate. Personal kaizen encourages us to follow our own pace, trying a little harder each day, but not putting too much pressure on ourselves, making sure we enjoy that process of continuous growth and improvement.
Suárez, M. F. et. Al. (2013) Changing quality of life through the Personal Kaizen approach: A qualitative study. International Journal of Quality and Service Sciences; 5(2): 191-207.
Brunet, A. P. & New, S. (2003) Kaizen in Japan: an empirical study. International Journal of Operations & Production Management; 23(12): 1426-1446.