What is Kaizen? The Little Gear

What is kaizen? A reader reminded me that a lot of terms used in articles on this blog go unexplained. Although it’s one of our favorite topics, kaizen is one such term that is often used but seldom explained in enough detail for someone new to the topic. In the interest of helping more people learn and do kaizen, I will make an effort to correct this in the future.

Somewhere within this website and others there are definition, explanations and examples of kaizen. Today I’m in a more reflective mood.

The left character above is KAI. It means to change something, like you would remodel your house or reorganize your government. It also means to renew. The right character is ZEN and it does not mean to meditate and bliss out contemplating the all-ness of nothing or the nothingness of all. Sorry. I’ve disappointed a few people with that news. It means simply “good” but in a fairly deep, semi-religious way. Not like “That pear was good. May I have another?” Rather, “All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing” kind of good. So if you want to put them together and say “improvement” or “continuous improvement” that’s fine. In common usage Japanese, the word means that. When applied to how some leading organizations are using kaizen to transform their business and enable people to improve their lives through it, the meaning is something more.

Kaizen is practice, repetition, the development of a mindset through habitual work. It’s the small gear that is easy to turn, and by repeated turning of that small gear we can do bigger things. When we try to move the big gears right away, sometimes we fail and think we can’t, when we only need persistence, and a bit of leverage. We want the answer, the solution, the big improvement so we act on leaps of insight and invention, falling in love with our idea. Then the idea turns out to be not so good and we either blindly defend it, we give up on it, or we can turn the little gear again. Kaizen is about taking away what isn’t working and trying something else. No matter how small that effort, the important thing is to make it.

A minor adjustment to the position of the cushion between between your back and your reading chair, that’s kaizen. Switching off a light, an appliance or being more mindful about how we drive, these things are kaizen. A brief walk to stretch the legs each day, a friendly word to a neighbor each day, small decisions based less on selfishness and more on long-term benefits for all, these are kaizen. Whatever small changes that propel us towards being good, whatever gives us the courage to try something a bit more audacious tomorrow, whatever action speaks louder than doubting thoughts or words, it’s all kaizen.


  1. Wei Wang

    September 5, 2009 - 5:49 am

    “change and be good” very appropriate for the Kaizen

  2. John Santomer

    September 7, 2009 - 6:46 am

    Dear Jon,
    I believe everyone wants improvement whether its personal or for the good of the group as a whole. The only hard thing to differentiate is whether the change would “actually” be good for just the person who initiates the change or the group as a whole. Different individuals have different views on the current “position of the cushion”, congeniality in a greeting, looking at long and short term effects of change. These are unique in every individual-it is the agreement of everyone to see the change as a positve thing for the whole that is the challenge. The skewed perception of change is what brings up the defense mechanism of either sticking to it blindly or totally giving up on the whole thing. But even so, incremental “Kaizen” steps, as we roll down the change, also prove important to the intiative brigning it closer to the desired optimum change results. (A3 Stategy Sheets are good tools to guide such changes in the initiatives). Practicing the change,repetition and development of the mindset through habitual work will sustain and maintain the Kaizen improvement and realize the long term optimal results. Further doing so will assure its sustainability.I question how one call call people who do nothing in the face of evil as “Good Men”? Are they not called accomplices(in evil)? And if these people question the change proposed, have they not participated in the “Tatakidai”, “Nemawashi”, 5 Why’s and all that? Do they immediately become part of the “Kaizen” initiative even if they did not do any action as part of the whole “Kiazen” process?