Kaizen: The Japanese Productivity Philosophy That Will Improve the Quality of Your Work
There is no one-size-fits-all productivity hack for all of us. I wish it was that easy, but we are each unique with our own strengths and weaknesses, which has fostered such a rich and diverse society. That’s why I am a wider advocate of philosophies over regimented systems — anyone can adopt a particular mindset and use that thinking to create their own operating systems that suit their needs.
Kaizen, which translates to “the act of making bad points better,” is one such philosophy. When applied to productivity, it means improvement and “good change,” which stands juxtaposed to the conventional Silicon Valley mindset of “Move Fast and Break Things,” motto that’s notoriously written on the walls inside Facebook.
Instead, approaching your work using the kaizen philosophy is more methodical: it’s the constant cycle of building, standing back, evaluating what could be improved, and then building again.
The best analogy is working on a complicated puzzle that has lots of pieces. You’re not just looking for the right puzzle pieces to fit together but you’re also regularly looking back at the picture on the side of the box, looking at your puzzle, and seeing whether there’s a smarter way to work.
Should I first start working on this section of the puzzle? Or does it make sense to collect all the same-coloured puzzle pieces and see how fast I can put them together? I should probably complete the border first, shouldn’t I?
Kaizen is assessing as you work and, bit by bit, you begin to not only work better but raise the quality of your product.
There are three aspects to the kaizen philosophy. The first, and perhaps the most important, component is to make mistakes. Instead of striving for perfection, strive for progress. It’s approaching each project with the mindset that mistakes are often the most useful learning opportunities, so make them as much as possible. Inherent in this mindset is an encouragement to experiment. What’s the worst that can happen? There is no downside.
Find Problems and Fix Them
On the opposite side of the same coin, kaizen is about praising the location of problems and resolving them. In order to improve the quality of our service or product, we need to seek feedback from our clients and colleagues.
Instead of reacting defensively to constructive criticism, we must learn to separate our feelings from the objective quality of our work and train ourselves to accept all feedback as important.
Even more difficult, we — as the original maker — are the most intimate with our work and are therefore in a privileged position to scrutinize it. Is there some aspect of the service or product that is not as strong as the rest? What problems can you anticipate occurring in the future?
We cannot always rely on others to let us know what might be wrong with our work.
The final aspect of kaizen is constant innovation. When you’re done with one client project, it’s on to the next one. And with the next one, it’s another opportunity to revisit your process and see what can be improved upon.
Perhaps you leave more time for the “research” stage. Perhaps you ask your client about what their expectations are in a slightly different way. Perhaps you simply decide to work in silence without music and see how effective (or ineffective) it is. It’s about small modifications to the existing process.
We often fall into the trap of deleting everything and starting afresh. Who doesn’t like the idea of a new start? But if the focus is on enhancing our productivity: making higher-quality products through smarter, more efficient processes, it makes sense to build upon what works and toss out what doesn’t.
It’s favouring strategic progress over tearing apart the entire system.
The additional benefit of approaching your work with a kaizen mindset is that you begin to know your system more intimately since you are focusing on the same process. You’re not constantly forcing yourself to learn new hacks or procedures. You’re refining what you already know. This is a system that you’re already an expert on because you helped build it.
Kaizen favours a community approach to work; you don’t work in a cave and come out with a finished product. You receive constant feedback from clients, colleagues, and other stakeholders who become invested in the success of your work. It emphasizes diversity in opinion, constant revision, and leveraging the power law to double-down on what works and scrap what doesn’t. It’s strength endures and it’s weaknesses are exposed.
At the core of kaizen lies the beginner’s mindset: the willingness to change one’s mind after eagerly been proven wrong. It’s feedback, iteration, feedback, iteration, feedback, iteration. Rinse and repeat.
To summarize, in the words of Winston Churchill:
“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”