What is Kaizen Method?

What is Kaizen Method?


“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur… Don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens — and when it happens, it lasts.”
Coach John Wooden

How did John Wooden, the men’s basketball coach at the University of California at Los Angeles, who won 10 NCAA National Championships in the space of 12 years, start off his first practice of the year? Sprints? Lay-ups? Defensive drills? Nope. He was such a big believer in small improvements that he started it off with a session on how to properly put on socks and tie basketball shoes. He felt that preventing blisters and injuries to his players’ feet was the first small improvement that could help the team win. The commitment to small improvements worked — John Wooden ended his UCLA coaching career with a 620–147 overall record and a winning percentage of .808.

I talked about Coach Wooden and his leadership lessons and on his Pyramid of Success in previous posts. But his concept of small improvements (also known as kaizen) can help you in the office, on the court, and at home.

Kaizen is a Japanese word that refers to business activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees. It takes Coach Wooden’s idea on small improvements and applies it to the entire corporate enterprise. Furthermore, it has become applied to self-improvement, assembly lines, logistics, healthcare, psychotherapy, government, and banking. It is a powerful tool and one that you should add to your toolbox to help you grow your grit and accomplish your goals.

History of Kaizen

Kaizen started out as a way to improve businesses efficiency and effectiveness. The small-step work improvement approach was developed in America under the Training Within Industry program prior to World War II. Instead of encouraging large, radical changes to achieve desired goals, the continuous improvement method preached that organizations introduce look for any place in the business that was inefficient and then make small improvements, preferably ones that could be implemented on the same day. Many companies used this approach as they increased production to meet the war-time demands of World War II.

After World War II, American occupation forces brought experts to Japan to assist with the rebuilding of Japanese industry. Homer Sarasohn, Charles Protzman, W. Edwards Deming, and Lowell Mellen helped Japanese industry use statistical control methods and continuous improvement as they rebuilt themselves from the ashes of the war. Kaoru Ishikawa took the concept even further, defining how continuous improvement, or kaizen, can be applied to processes across a corporate enterprise.

Most famously, the Toyota Production System used the concept of kaizen to help improve the process of manufacturing Toyota cars. All people working on the assembly line were empowered to stop the line if they noticed any problem or defect at their station. Dealing with the problem now, rather than after the car was assembled, enabled Toyota to fix problems quickly and build high quality cars. Interestingly, American car manufacturers, like Ford, have now implemented this approach on their assembly lines as well.

Kaizen and Sports

Another place where kaizen was applied in sports was in cycling. Team Ineos Grenadiers, a British cycling team, applied the concept in what they called “aggregation of marginal gains” — or the continuous quest to improve even the littlest things by small margins. The accumulation of small, marginal gains would make a difference on the race course. Of course they did the usual things — they redesigned the bike seat to make it more comfortable, had the cyclists wear a ice vest while warming up to keep their core temperature cooler, and spent hours in the wind tunnel looking for any aerodynamic gain they could find.

However, they looked in unexpected areas. The team carried the specific pillow and mattress that each rider preferred. So they could get the best sleep possible, they had a individual washer and dryer for each rider so they wouldn’t spread germs to each other as they washed clothes during the three weeklong races. And they tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery.

The aggregation of marginal gains paid off — Team Ineos Grenadiers won the Tour de France in 2012. 2013. 2015. 2016. 2017. 2018. And 2019. Since 2017 Team Ineos Grenadiers won 57 World Tour races, the most of any team on the World Tour.

Applying Kaizen to Your Life

So how do you apply Kaizen to your life?

The best way that I have found is to take small steps — steps that are so tiny they seem trivial. Taking the small steps will enable you to overcome obstacles that have defeated you before. Small steps take very little time or money. Even those without incredible willpower can accomplish a small change by using small steps.

For example:
  • If your goal is to begin an exercise program. Start by walking in place in front of the TV for one minute. Or by parking your car in the last row of the parking lot at work.
  • If your goal is to get more sleep, start by going to bed one minute earlier than you usually do.
  • If your goal is to keep the house clean. Moreover, pick an area of the house, set a timer for five minutes, and clean that area up. When the timer goes off stop cleaning.
  • If your goal is to save money, start by committing to save one dollar per day. Maybe you could swap the grande Pumpkin Spice Latte for a tall Pumpkin Spice Latte?
  • If your goal is to eat less chocolate, start by throwing out the first bite. Then, eat the rest of the chocolate.
There are four keys to small small steps:
  1. Ask yourself, “What is one small, concrete action I can take tomorrow. That can start me on the way to my goal?”
  2. Then, do that one small, concrete action.
  3. Keep doing that one small, concrete action for a streak of a week, ten days, or three weeks. Ie, whatever time frame works for you.
  4. Repeat the process and look for a new small concrete action.

Conclusion : What is Kaizen Method?

Want even more on how to make big changes in your life or your performance at work? Reach out to me me here for help through six months of executive coaching. Or a workshop for your whole team.

I published a book last summer on how to develop your perseverance and better accomplish your goals. Grow Your Grit, available for sale at Amazon.

Go on the offense and take small steps to make real change.

What is Kaizen Method?