Kaizen: How you can innovate, improve quality, cut costs and boost morale -- one small step at a time


Though the media and consultants love stories of radical change, a more effective way of actually bringing about individual and organisational change lies in a series of systematic small steps – well exemplified by kaizen.

The Japanese term kaizen means ‘good change,’ and is based on the philosophy of cumulative and continuous improvement. Its roots are in post-World War II Japan, with inputs from American statisticians such as W.E. Deming. Its spirit lives on in varied disciplines such as lean production, lean innovation and just-in-time delivery (see my reviews of the books Lean Startup and Lean Entrepreneur).

In his book The Spirit of Kaizen: Creating Lasting Excellence One Small Step at a Time, Robert Maurer provides a range of checklists for managers, innovators, and entrepreneurs for implementing progressive change.

“Radical change sets off our brain’s fear response and shuts down our powers to think clearly and creatively,” cautions Maurer. Smaller quieter steps do not cause stress or fear, and thus allow our creative and intellectual processes to flow more easily -- thereby creating lasting and powerful change in an incremental manner.

Constant repetition also makes it easier to convert activities into habits, and the very act of doing small tasks gives the mind a sense of achievement. This also helps overcome mental blindfolds and work-related stress which prevent us from embracing positive change. Wrenching change can overwhelm an organisation or even freeze it up, as shown by the challenges facing Ford, Xerox and NASA during their histories.

While kaizen has been used extensively in production, it has only been recently introduced to entrepreneurship and business management. It helps deal with three change problems: managing fear, helping yourself change and helping others change. Kaizen can be used not just by managers but every employee in an organisation, thus helping them feel more empowered, alert and inspired.

The book identifies five key domains where kaizen can be effective: innovation, quality, sales, productivity and morale. I have summarised the key takeaways in Table 1; each chapter offers more anecdotes and sidebars on these principles in action.

Table 1: Kaizen in action

Business domainKaizen actionsExamples
Product and service innovationStay curious at all times, observe the smallest details, learn from pain points and frustration, tap ‘attentive boredom,’ ask questions, cross-collaborateEdward Jenner’s discovery of smallpox vaccine by talking to milkmaids (who had cowpox), invention of Sweet’N Low and PostIt by accident, ideas which led AmEx Travelers’ Cheques
Improving qualityLook out for warning signs; allow discreet reporting of errors; track every process, even the successful ones; discuss and do not avoid bad news; don’t be overconfidentIndyCar precautions in races; FedEx reminding its employees every day about service excellence; Pixar’s openness to suggestions from all employees including new ones; David Lee Roth’s insistence on stage quality during rock shows
Cutting costsInvite employees to begin with small steps to cut costs, be receptive to suggestions across the board, offer small rewards for positive reinforcementContinental Airlines offering employees a $65 bonus each for better performance; American Airlines asking for suggestions to save at least $25; UPS reducing left turns in its driver maps; PwC’s employee suggestion website
Boosting moraleGive small gestures of thanks, show respect and curiosity, greet by name, pay attention during conversations, ask open-ended questions, communicate regularlyZappos hiring only people with positive attitude -- it even asks its drivers for opinions about candidates whom they picked up or dropped off; medical clinics improving customer satisfaction by asking receptionists for ideas
Increasing salesMotivate sales staff via guided imagery, visualisation and mind sculpture; remind yourself regularly of company values and missionU.Penn. motivating fundraising staff by asking college kids to share stories of scholarship benefits; Medtronic inviting customers to its annual party; Volvo circulating letters from satisfied customers

Innovation in big companies as well as successful startups is powered by problem solving, discipline, creativity and inspiration. “Inspiration is much more likely to develop from the habit of consistently paying attention to life’s small moments. Creativity is not a thing. It’s an activity,” explains Maurer.

It’s often silly mistakes, trivial problems and even boredom that spark off new ideas. “Train yourself in the curiosity response,” the author advises. Ask open-ended questions and don’t worry about running down blind alleys; be patient in your hunt for answers.

For example, James Fargo invented the Travelers’ Cheque for American Express when he was frustrated with the cash and credit process during travels. UK-based scientist Shashikant Phadnis accidentally discovered the sweetener which became Spenda when he thought he was supposed to ‘taste’ a chemical and not ‘test’ it.

Perry Spencer stumbled upon the idea for the microwave oven at Raytheon when he was curious about why his chocolate bar melted near a piece of radar equipment. Robert Worseley came up with the idea of Skymall magazine when he was bored on a flight and converted idle time into an idea for shopping.

A close cousin of creativity is patience,” Maurer explains. Einstein came up with his theory of relativity only after 10 years of efforts. James Joyce’s Ulysses was a masterpiece – but took 10 years to write. Henry Ford’s Model T was named after the 20th letter of the alphabet – because his first 19 attempts failed.

The universal desire of employees to feel engaged is the ‘birth mother’ of kaizen. Whether it is innovation or productivity, managers and startup founders should ask employees for ideas, discuss their ideas and thank them, Maurer advises: show time and interest in them. At the same time, don’t let external pressures or top management directives compromise your basic quality.

Toyota used to be the gold standard in cars, but when it began to skimp on quality in its rush to be the largest automaker in the world, its quality slipped – and the brand has been tarnished. NASA in its rush to be ‘cheaper and faster’ overlooked the seemingly small issue of scorched shuttle rings – which one day caught fire and led to the disaster of the 1986 shuttle explosion.

The key to kaizen success at the individual level is starting and nurturing ‘internal conversations’ in your mind, explicitly writing down and tracking your progress, and persevering in small non-threatening steps in a cumulative manner. Sometimes this includes visualising yourself in the desired end state, and even saying things out loud to yourself so that repetition becomes reinforcement, much like persuasive advertising.

A lot of this can begin with as little as a minute of activity per day, and focusing on the smallest things (even seemingly ridiculous ones) so that it makes change simple and pleasant in the long run. Even in times of crisis, kaizen helps by breaking down big tasks into smaller micro-steps.

Maurer ends by showing how kaizen can even be used to improve your own personal health by increasing exercise and decreasing food consumption in small daily steps. Many short bursts of exercise can be as effective as one long workout, and certainly better than no exercise at all. To overcome anxiety, the simple 4-8-4-10 breathing technique works (breathe in for four counts, hold for eight, breathe out for four – repeat 10 times).

Focus on at least one positive aspect of yourself per day, and it can help increase your hopes and silence your harsh inner critical voice. Overcome your sense of isolation by asking for small simple things each day, and you will be surprised how many people want to help you.

Keep your goals in your mind and ask yourself each day where you are – and the answers to getting there will eventually come. “Kaizen is hopeful. It requires that we enjoy the journey, concentrating on mastery in the moment and trusting the rest to our brain and our spirit,” Maurer concludes.

“Continuous improvement is built on the foundation of people courageously using their creativity. Kaizen is much more than a world-class management practice; it is a technique to remove fear from our mind’s mind, enabling us to take small steps to better things. The process of change starts with awareness and desire in our minds and then leads to action and change in the physical world,” says Masaaki Imai, Chariman, Kaizen Institute, in endorsement.

About the author:

Robert Maurer is director of behavioural sciences and a faculty member with the UCLA School of Medicine. He has served as a consultant to Walt Disney Studios, the US Air Force, Canyon Ranch Health Spa, Habitat for Humanity and BP. His book on kaizen is available in ten languages.



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