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Can You Kaizen?

The Japanese word Kaizen has made its way into the English vernacular with the help of gurus in manufacturing, management, psychology, life coaching - you name it. It's long been a buzz word for creating a lean process by minimizing waste and is often translated as constant improvement. But what does the word really mean?

Kaizen is made up of 2 kanji (Chinese characters): the first meaning "change, reform, revise" and the second meaning "good, goodness", or together they could be defined as improvement. There's nothing in these, however, that has the imbedded meaning of constant or continuous.

That is unless you take a little closer look at both the characters themselves and how their meaning plays out in Japanese culture.

Most kanji can be broken down into simpler parts, called radicals, that provide complexity and depth to the kanji. The first kanji for kaizen is ?(kai) which has the radicals ? for "oneself" and ? for "stick in hand, strike, or force." The two radicals together imply forcing oneself to change.

The second character is ?(zen) which also has two radicals: the top one ? meaning "sheep" or "lamb" and the bottom radical meaning "an altar." These two radicals together imply sacrifice.

So the original characters themselves have the implied meaning of forcing oneself to change through sacrifice. But there is no obvious implication of "continuous" in these, is there?

Now comes the role of the Japanese culture and custom of self reflection.  

This emphasis on self reflection begins in early childhood training, but is institutionalized in corporations, politics, the justice system, the education system, and interpersonal relationships. Its major components are:

  • "Being constantly aware of your actions and their impact on others
  • Looking at them with humility and objectivity
  • Accepting responsibility, without excuse, for anything that has negatively impacted others
  • Committing to a plan for how you'll make sure it won't happen again

It's a process that every person in Japan does constantly, often in tiny ways throughout the day without even thinking about it. Far from making one look weak, admitting your mistakes honestly is the necessary first step to improvement. And, most importantly, it gives a person the power to improve without fear - because if you are always the first to search for ways you can improve, and freely admit to the problem areas without blaming external forces, you realize that every opportunity to glimpse a weakness is an exciting chance to improve. Further, it liberates one from the monotony of making the same mistakes over and over.

If you can embrace this, you will realize that any negative feedback from a superior or mentor that can give you insight is a gift!

In a Japanese corporation, a group will come together when a project, large or small is completed to debrief the process in a hansei kai (meeting for reflection). This is not for the purpose of patting each other on the back for a job well done. Everyone ought to be observant enough to already know what has gone well. Rather, it is an opportunity for the group and the individuals in it to reflect on how they could have eliminated issues and made the process better, and yet better, even if there was no obvious problem. If there had been a problem, the group would have tried to analyze the issue immediately, then reflect on how to prevent it in the future at the first opportunity.

This means that, in terms of kaizen, a critical component to really making it continuous is to approach the process with an attitude of humility, knowing you're not perfect, but ready to embrace it as a positive way of life. It's a mindset of realizing that from this comes a powerful discipline that enables constant progress.

by Diana Rowland

Author of Japanese Business: Rules of Engagement

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Rowland & Associates is a premier cross-cultural consulting firm, providing essential international business skills since 1985. Our passion is bringing intercultural business success through heightened insight and agility. We believe that bold steps with exceptional preparation can create dynamic solutions.

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