What Is Kaizen in Japanese, and How Is It Useful?

Back in January, I set a bunch of goals for the year 2021 to reclaim my life after 2020. But with the year more than halfway over, I want to pause and reassess my progress toward accomplishing those goals.

In Japan, there is a tried-and-true method for achieving better results and higher productivity: kaizen, meaning, quite simply, “improvement.” It’s a practice meant to evaluate how we work to progress toward our goals more efficiently.

If you’re interested in staying (or getting back) on track for accomplishing your 2021 goals, read on to learn more about how kaizen works!

What Is Kaizen?

Kaizen (改善) is a Japanese word that means “renew for good.” While it’s sometimes translated into English as “continuous improvement,” in business, “kaizen (as it’s also often written in English) refers to refining business processes to raise quality standards, cut costs, and reduce wasted time.  

While the concept became popular in Japanese business after World War II, globally, it is most closely associated with Toyota Motor Corporation. Specifically with what gets described as the Toyota Production System (トヨタ生産方式) and even the Toyota Way (トヨタ式, literally “Toyota Style”). Toyota has defined many different processes to improve the way work is performed—from eliminating waste to automating tasks. And these processes and review practices can help individuals, too, not just big corporations.

How Is Kaizen Used?

Applying kaizen can be as simple or complex as you want. At its core, kaizen emphasizes that you:

  • avoid being complacent about the current situation,
  • notice problems of your own volition, and
  • continuously change (the situation) for the better.

There have been numerous books and articles (like this one) written about kaizen, but a good starting point involves several steps:

  1. Identify a situation that can be improved
  2. Analyze the current situation
  3. Brainstorm possible solutions
  4. Plan how to implement a solution
  5. Execute the plan
  6. Assess the results
  7. Repeat!

Kaizen is meant to be a continuous practice, which means that problems don’t have to be solved all at once. Small changes make a big difference in the long run!

How Can Kaizen Be Useful for You Today?

Even if you aren’t operating car factories, you can use kaizen to improve your everyday life. For example, this month, I assessed how I was doing on my resolution to take better care of myself—of which skincare is a big part. But I found I was skipping my nightly face cleanse, which is a huge step in the process.

So I decided it was time to kaizen my skincare routine. And the process looked like this: 

  1. Identify: I need to wash my face every night… 
  2. Analyze: But I’m too tired at night to wash my face!
  3. Brainstorm: Face wipes instead? Wash my face in the morning? Right after dinner?
  4. Plan: Let’s try washing my face after dinner, not right before going to bed (when I’m super tired). 

“Execute” is where I’m at now. I think it’s working (at least I’m cleansing my face more frequently than before), but I can do better.

And that’s the whole goal of kaizen! It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be an improvement from before. I’m hoping to “assess” the situation and “repeat” the process soon.

My identified “problem” is small, but kaizen can be scaled to help you address more significant issues and achieve bigger goals. So the next time you’re looking for a way to achieve more (and do so more efficiently), give kaizen a try—it might just become a continuous habit.

Photo of author

Satoko Kakihara

Satoko grew up in both Japan and the United States, enjoying the best of both worlds. She now teaches the Japanese language, literature, and culture in California.

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