Putting the Zen Back in Kaizen

By Jon Miller Updated on May 29th, 2017

The “zen” in the word “kaizen” has nothing to do with Zen Buddhism. This is a mistake we often see in books or presentations.
Kaizen means continuous improvement, or literally “to change and make good” (改善とは改めて善くすること) but we can recognize a lot of Zen in kaizen, by examining the Four Noble Truths.
1. Existence is suffering (dissatisfaction)
Zen Buddhists (as all branches of Buddhism) believe that suffering (a stronger form of dissatisfaction) comes from our egos and desires because we perceive that we are distinct and separate from the rest of reality (our customers and suppliers).
In the world of Lean, work is waste. When a process is separate and distinct from the entire end-to-end order to delivery process, there appears to be optimization but this in fact is an illusion (sub-optimization) that creates waste and causes suffering.
When we do kaizen and make what we think are improvements based on our own ideas and egos, but not based on the rest of reality (observable facts and statistics), we suffer.

First Zen of kaizen: Focus on your customers, because your customers are everyone but you.

2. Suffering (dissatisfaction) is due to desire (pull)
We suffer, or are dissatisfied because we live in a world of imperfect processes. As customers we want perfect safety, quality, deliver and cost yet this is never achieved. Dissatisfaction occurs when there is a pull (desire) that is not fulfilled.
Zen is concerned with seeing deeply into the true nature of things through direct experience. Lean is concerned with seeing deeply into the true nature of things through direct observation.
Just as Zen encourages meditation, Lean requires deep reflection the problems in order to understand their true natures (root causes).
We suffer because we think we know. We do not, yet we act as if we do.
Second Zen of kaizen: Focus on observation and learning.
3. Ending attachment can end suffering
Instead of focusing on the process, and improving every day, we focus on results because we desire rewards and recognition. We are attached to these things and this distorts our measurements and rewards wasteful behavior. The failure of prevailing accounting practices to accurately reflect the benefits of Lean, and financial markets that reward short term stock performance at the expense of the long-term health of enterprises and communities are just two such examples.
The heroic efforts that people make to achieve results in spite of broken processes, rather than stopping to directly observe and fix the processes, causes further suffering.
Third Zen of kaizen: Focus on the process and the results will follow.
4. How to end suffering (follow the path)
Buddhism teaches that detachment and the end to suffering comes from correct mindsets and behaviors that lead to moderation, known as the Eightfold Path. These eight consist of right thought (recognizing the condition of badness), right speech (speaking the truth), right actions (follow the rules), right livelihood (making a profit based on the previous three), right understanding (wisdom), right effort (perseverance), right mindfulness (awareness of current condition), and right concentration (focus and long-term thinking).
Zen is about attaining wisdom through action. Zen Buddhists believe that daily life and daily work teaches you more than sacred texts, theory or certifications. This is learning by doing, in kaizen terms.
Just as in kaizen, Zen encourages practitioners to learn from sensei (teachers) as well as from other practitioners, through direct experience as much as possible.
Fourth Zen of kaizen: Focus on doing the right thing.
How can we put the Zen back in kaizen? Meditate on it.

  1. George Pitagorsky

    June 3, 2008 - 1:10 pm

    We can put the Zen back in Kaizen by practicing mindfulness and open mindedness. The recent book The Zen Approach to Project Management address the issue with a project management perspective.

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