Kaizen – the practice of improving
Charles Darwin is often quoted as touting the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Whether or not he was the first person to use this phrase is in debate, but as the grand-daddy in the field of evolution I believe he was the one who inspired its use as a common phrase. Around the same time the following phrase was also coined and was in some ways contradictory:
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”
If this idea of adaptation helps to explain how evolution works in the natural world, I’m going to make a leap and suggest that it’s also applicable to the world of organisations. In fact, when you look at a number of universal principles between the two worlds, there often isn’t much difference.
The core of our success to adapt and survive in an ever-changing environment is our ability to be creative and innovative. I’m suggesting that a focus for this creative effort is to continually seek out ways to make things better. We can never arrive at an end goal when it comes to tweaking, finessing and improving the way we do things.
For this reason I do not believe in the concept of ‘best practice’. I think you can never achieve ‘best practice’. It’s an abstract goal and one that I prefer to replace with a ‘quest for better practice’. Granted there are situations where a snapshot of process warrants this label, but within the context of making things better it loses its power as a driver for continuous quality assurance. It’s better to be progressing than seeking perfection. As they say, momentum precedes clarity.
This attitude of better practice is at the core of a philosophy called Kaizen. Kaizen is based on the belief that everything can be improved: Kai is the Japanese for ‘change’ and Zen is ‘good’. Kaizen is attributed to the success of Japanese business and one of the reasons that Japanese manufacturing industries became so dominant.
One of the qualities of Kaizen is that ALL employees are responsible for making things better and can suggest how improvements might take place. In addition to improving the process of activity, Kaizen also benefits the individual. Staff are given the opportunity to have an impact on how things are done – meaning they gain a sense of ownership and influence, as their job stimulates more involvement than just cashing a pay check.
Improvements can happen through major initiatives, formal review processes or as part of your everyday job. And it is within the latter that I believe Kaizen really comes to the fore. Each and every one of us can identify areas where we feel we could improve our performance – anything from how we use our vocal skills, the use of non-verbals, the manner in which we greet visitors or even how we work with our colleagues.
The easiest way of implementing the practice of Kaizen is to select just one thing you want to improve and work on this for a nominated period of time. For further reading on the notion of focusing on manageable tasks try Josh Kaufman’s ‘The first 20 hours … how to learn anything fast’.
My Kaizen for this month is to work on remembering the names of visitors I meet. To complement this task, I’m going to learn ways of building my capacity in this area. It could be learning an acronym that helps me remember names or improving my memory so that I remember the association between person and name. Once July is over, I’m then going to ensure that for the first week of August all visitors are greeted with a genuine and warm welcome. And on it goes.
When you practice Kaizen it doesn’t take long to realise how much you’re learning and building your repertoire of skills and knowledge. And in the spirit of Kaizen I leave you with the following phrases “progressionism achieves more than perfectionism” and “how you act determines how you feel” so restrict the urge to ‘wait till you’re in the mood’ … act and you’ll soon get in the mood. And perhaps one more wee saying … enjoy the journey because sometimes that destination arrives all too quickly. Hope you have fun with Kaizen.