Understanding Kaizen: Lessons Learned From Japan’s Jump From Worst to First

3 min read · 6 years ago


I suppose that many reading this are too young to remember the 1970s and ’80s when Japan was seemingly the unassailable champion of manufacturing. Especially in electronics and automobiles, Japan’s plants turned out products that left U.S. manufacturers in the dust, at least in terms of quality and reliability. We sadly waved “bye-bye” to our entire television manufacturing industry.

Probably even fewer of you are able to remember the days when the words “Made in Japan” were synonymous with “what you have before you is junk.” You see, after World War II, American quality assurance professionals, W. Edwards Deming chief among them, taught statistical quality control to the Japanese and they learned their lessons well. We were helping the Japanese get on their feet after suffering defeat in the war.

Japanese professionals pushed the concepts even further, incorporating the best aspects of their culture with modern manufacturing management to create what is called kaizen, which translates as “continuous improvement.” Toyota is famed for using this approach in its production of cars.

Big Concept, Simple Word

Being able to capture such a huge concept in one simple word has its benefits. It gives us something that is easy to express and pass on to others. It gives us something that is easy to rally around. If you can grab the spirit and use the tools of kaizen and apply them to all aspects of your business, you’ll find yourself creating a world-class company.

Every aspect of your operation should be applying kaizen to improve itself everyday. For example, do you have a blog? I use this illustration because I do a lot of writing in the course of my work. If you also write, you probably know that we tend to look at our work in a very basic way, such as, “I have to get three articles out this week!”

If we take kaizen to heart we would be challenged to make this week’s articles better than last week’s articles. I’m using blogging as an example, but you can apply these principles to everything you do in your business.

Next, the question becomes, “How can I know that what I’m writing today is better than what I wrote last week?” With this question we’re getting to the foundation of kaizen. You’ll recall that I credit the founding of kaizen to Deming’s introduction of statistical quality control in Japan. There’s an elusively important principle in quality assurance: If you can’t measure it, you can’t control it.

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To know which blogs perform better, I need to be able to measure their outcomes. This can be determined by page views, email list signups, click-throughs to products, or any number of other metrics. Further, the mere act of determining the important metrics for whatever process you’re trying to improve will help you point your business in the right direction, whether you’re trying to improve website performance or reduce the amount of paper your office uses.

Make Kaizen Your Company Culture

The reason Japan was able to become the manufacturer of the world’s highest-quality products after having been the worst was due to the fact that companies instilled the concept of kaizen in every employee, from entry level to the highest level of management. Further, they empowered employees to take action. For example, virtually every employee has the power to shut down a Toyota assembly line when he or she finds something that’s not correct.

Transferring this to your business means that you need to make kaizen a part of your company culture and then give your employees the authority and tools to actually make improvements and prevent errors. You see, when you do this it has the added benefit of giving individuals a stake in the outcome of your business. They can take pride in knowing that they did their jobs this week a little better than last week.

So going forward, introduce the concept to your team. Make it a priority and reward people who make improvements. This is really the way to become a highly-envied industry leader and a company that people want to work for.

About Megan Totka

Megan Totka is the Chief Editor for ChamberofCommerce.com, which helps small businesses grow their business on the web and facilitates connectivity between local businesses and more than 7,000 Chambers of Commerce worldwide. She specializes on the topic of small business tips and resources and business news. Megan has several years of experience on the topics of small business marketing, copywriting, SEO, online conversions, and social media. Megan spends much of her time establishing new relationships for ChamberofCommerce.com, publishing weekly newsletters educating small business on the importance of web presence, and also contributes to a number of publications on the web. Megan can be reached at megan@chamberofcommerce.com. Follow her on Twitter @ChamberOnline or @MeganTotka.

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