Most productivity methods give you tools to tackle specific projects or to-dos in an organised way. Kaizen, which translates roughly to "good change", is a Japanese productivity philosophy that helps you organise everything you do. In short, it means "constant, continuous improvement", and it's a mindset you can apply anywhere, at any job.
Kaizen is less of a productivity "system" that you use to organise a to-do list and more of a philosophy. Unlike the Getting Things Done (GTD) method and the Pomodoro Technique, Kaizen is a way of thinking and organising everything — from the way you work to the way your team works together.
What Is Kaizen?
While Kaizen translates just to "good change" and doesn't really have much implied meaning beyond that, in productivity circles the term means "constant, continual improvement". Put simply, every aspect of an organisation should, at all times, strive to do what it does better. The philosophy first appeared when several Japanese businesses, shortly after World War II, embraced the idea that doing things the way they have always been done was a bad idea, especially when better options were available that would make them more competitive. Inspired by western competitors and manufacturing methods, "Kaizen" came to be synonymous with company-wide efforts to improve upon and intelligently streamline business practices and manufacturing methods while simultaneously respecting the product, craft, or the people involved with making it.
This kind of continuous improvement can be broken down into six steps:
- Standardise: Come up with a process for a specific activity that's repeatable and organised.
- Measure: Examine whether the process is efficient using quantifiable data, like time to complete, hours spent, etc.
- Compare: Compare your measurements against your requirements. Does this process save time? Does it take too much time? Does it accomplish the desired result?
- Innovate: Search for new, better ways to do the same work or achieve the same result. Look for smarter, more efficient routes to the same end-goal that boost productivity.
- Standardise: Create repeatable, defined processes for those new, more efficient activities.
- Repeat: Go back to step one and start again.
It may seem exhausting, but once it's part of your mental approach to work, or your company (or team) culture, it will feel very natural. If you're always looking for better ways to do things, and you're always willing to give them a try, it's just a step up to formalise it and make sure everyone's on the same page.
Of course, we should point out that Kaizen is not change for change's sake. It's deliberate, constant improvement, and changes that don't actually bring you rewards shouldn't be made. Productivity is a double-edged sword after all. You can spend more time trying out new things and researching new tools than you would actually doing your work. Remember, the best productivity system is the one that helps you get things done, and the best apps are the ones you'll actually use. Keep that in mind when you're looking for ways to optimise your work.
Kaizen In Action: The Toyota Production System
Many associate Kaizen with the Toyota Production System, which uses Kaizen as one of its core business principles. A famous story (that's all but legend in business schools) goes that Toyota is so committed to continuous improvement that any worker on a Toyota assembly line could stop the line at any time to address a problem in production, correct an error, or suggest to management a better way to do things that reduces waste or improves efficiency.
The whole story goes like this: American auto execs visited Toyota plants to find out how their Japanese counterparts were able to produce so many vehicles with such little waste and so few errors. By contrast, their own plants were managing to keep production high, but had a remarkably high error rate at the end of the line. One mistake somewhere along the assembly line — like a door badly soldered, a steering wheel misaligned, or the wrong bolts in the wrong places — would make it all the way to the end of production, and then the vehicle would have to be disassembled and reassembled to correct the error. Doing so cost more money than if the error had been corrected immediately, or if it had never happened in the first place.
The visiting execs watched Toyota's process in action and were stunned at how it worked. It was unimaginable for a single line worker to have the ability to stop the line without the approval of a foreman, much less have anything worthwhile to suggest to management as far as line policy or procedure were concerned. The idea of rewarding employees for fixing errors immediately — even if it wasn't their job — was unheard of, especially since the going logic at the time was "no matter what, don't stop the line." The visiting execs, the story concludes, went home and implemented similar procedures. They started to reward people who sought out better ways to work together, or to get the job done, and they rewarded people for quality work instead of just more work.
As rosy as that story may be, those tenets are core to Kaizen as a productivity philosophy. Once embraced, the goal is to do better work, not just more work (to work smarter, not harder, as it were.) Similarly, it's important to make time to look for improvements and optimisations. Of course, this isn't for the sake of change, but to make your work — and by extension, your life — better. As always, the bottom line is to find a way to spend less time on the things you have to do, and gives you more time to do the things you want to do.
How to Make Kaizen Work for You
Kaizen is easy to implement. Since it's more of a mental philosophy than an actual methodology, there are no tools to buy, apps to download, or planners to scribble in. Instead, making Kaizen work for you largely involves changing your approach to your work. It may seem like Kaizen has to be a corporate philosophy, but Kaizen works on a personal level, too. Here are a few tips.
First, stay on the lookout for better ways to do your own work. If you're usually busy, set aside regular time to get in touch with your work and your priorities. You can spend that downtime making sure you're doing things right — or doing your work in the best way possible. The one-hour Weekly Review is a good way to do this, since the goal of the review is to do just that. It takes you out of the trenches and gives you a 10,000-foot view of your work. Alternatively, use an app like RescueTime to track how you work. You'll get valuable insight into how you spend your day, and where your time goes. With that perspective, you can see how you spend your time, where it's being wasted, and get more engaged with why you're doing what you do.
Similarly, Google employees famously used to spend 20 per cent of their time looking for better ways to work, and 80 per cent of their time doing their regular jobs. Google has since minimised the policy, but the idea is still sound. If you can carve out time to try new ways to work, or try passion projects that may take you in new and interesting directions, you'll get that time back when you discover better techniques or faster tools. If 20 per cent seems aggressive, try 10 per cent — even a few hours a week talking to your boss about ways you can streamline your work, clear your plate, or a new tool that makes everyone's job easier can make a world of difference — as long as you're open to it and looking for it. That's slow, continuous, constant improvement.
When you do find a way to make your work more efficient, spend some time investigating it. If it meshes with your style and the type of work that you do, give it a shot and see if it saves you time. If you work on a team, be open to constructive criticism and feedback from the people you work with. You never know when someone you work with will propose a change or tweak to your current way of doing things that can save time and energy for everyone. If you're immediately defensive because "this is the way we've always done things," you may miss a valuable opportunity to do things better. Remember, start small, and take small steps. That's the essence of Kaizen.
How to Keep Kaizen In Mind When You're Busy with Work
The practical applications of Kaizen are great, but they still involve getting time away from your work so you can think about how to do your work better. It's also important to keep the basic principles in mind while you're working — you don't want to be so absorbed in your job that you miss something important, or shy away from speaking up when you have something to offer. You don't, for example, want to be the assembly line worker who sees the half-attached bumper and wrong tires mounted to the vehicle you're working on, but let them go down the line because your job is just to attach the side-view mirrors.
One of the immediate benefits of Kaizen is a sense of ownership and the authority over your work. Ideally, everyone should feel engaged with and passionate about the work they do, from start to finish, and everyone should do what it takes to make the final product as good as it can be. Whether you work on the side mirrors or the tire mounting, you should want that vehicle to leave the line in perfect condition. It can be tough if your job tries to isolate you, or you feel disengaged and beaten down, but it's that sense of rewarding work that really keeps us motivated. If you don't have it, do what you can to get it, or look for a job where you can.
Similarly, another principle of Kaizen is to minimise waste wherever possible. That doesn't just mean wasted time and energy doing your work, but wasted effort that's tangential to work. Spending time in meetings that don't need to happen, for example, or writing up status reports that never get read, are good examples of waste that could give you time back to work — or look for better ways to work. Sure, some meetings have to happen, and status reports can be important, but if they're not helpful, offload them, find a way to automate them, or delegate them to someone else. If managing your inbox takes up too much of your day, look for systems that will organise it for you or automate it entirely so you only see and deal with what's important. Every hour you power through because you think you don't have time to try something better is an hour wasted.
It's easy to just keep doing things the familiar way just to make it to the end of the day, but doing so stifles improvement. When you look for better ways to work, you learn new skills, accomplish goals you're proud of, make yourself more valuable to your job (or any job), make positive changes, and save time and energy. It's not easy, but it's worth it.
At this stage, you have the tools to start applying Kaizen to your personal productivity philosophy. We've covered the basics here, but if you want to read more on the topic, here are a few resources:
- The Kaizen Institute
- Warping Forward with Kaizen
- Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense Approach to a Continuous Improvement Strategy, Second Edition by Masaaki Imai
- Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success by Masaaki Imai
- One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer, Ph.D
- Continual Improvement Process
- Toyota Production System
Even at its most basic level, all you have to do is keep your eyes open for and embrace ways to improve when they appear. With just a little effort and attention to detail, Kaizen can serve as a kind of "productivity philosophy" that rests on top of everything else you do.