Ask any Japanese on the streets of Tokyo, “What is Kaizen?” And most likely the answer you’ll get is “to improvise”.
Like many other Japanese concepts, it is the western world that tries to formulate a typical Japanese habit into something philosophical that sounds bombastic enough to sell to the rest of the world.
Hence, “Kaizen” is often translated as “Continuous Improvement” with some framework to make sense of this common Japanese behaviour of improvising a handy solution to a simple problem.
The real question is, why do Japanese minds think of such things?
It seems like their eyes can see things that we non-Japanese are oblivious to. Is it their culture? Is it because of their upbringing? Is the secret in their education system?
Having some experience living in Japan and going to school with 98% of my classmates being Japanese, somewhat made me realise that the answer to the above questions is quite simple – Japanese embrace scarcity. What it means is, they understand that resources are limited and willing to put the community’s interest ahead of any individual’s interest. It is a society’s survival instinct that they cultivated based on the impact of geographical and historical influence to their livelihood. So, their culture was developed around this understanding and their upbringing and education system was developed to support this culture.
But that does not mean that we non-Japanese are incapable of learning this mindset. In fact, to adapt it is relatively simple, especially at an individual level on a daily basis.
The core belief is, “eliminate waste, increase productivity” – a two-tiered approach that must happen simultaneously. It is not enough to “just eliminate waste”, the act of “eliminating the waste” must at the same time, “increase productivity”.
For example, it is not enough to just arrive early. Because arriving early will result in idle time (time is wasted on waiting) if the person does nothing. So, a better option is to arrive “just in time” (JIT) so there is no waiting or lag. To achieve this balance is where they constantly look for simple and easy ways to make things more productive.
In fact, one of the most credited figure of Kaizen, Taiichi Ohno, once famously said, “Progress cannot be generated when we are satisfied with existing situations.” This probably prompted another Toyota engineer, Shigeo Shingo to introduce the improvement priority: (1) Easier, (2) Better, (3) Faster, (4) Cheaper – specifically in that order.
So, in short, the “Kaizen” mindset is all about fulfilling the responsibility one has in society to look for improvements continuously for the benefit of everyone. No matter big or small, all those contributing effort will eventually accumulate to bring a larger impact to everyone in the long run. Because at the end of the day, when humanity wins, everyone wins.