Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning – Benjamin Franklin
It’s fast approaching the middle of January; that time of the month where all those short lived motivation for New Year’s Resolutions start to crumble. There’s no doubt that there’s intense difficulty in creating solid habits and achieving our goals and dreams, however, I believe one of the key reasons we give up on our ambitious pursuits, comes down to the HOW – particularly our beliefs, the way we think and the guiding principles that we use to live our lives.
Guiding principles, simply put, are a collection of philosophies and beliefs that we live by to manage our thoughts, organise our lives, and get the most out of life. Guiding principles are completely individual and can come from all aspects of life – some people derive theirs from religion, art, travel, community – in other words, absolutely anything that gives us meaning, and a reason to live!
I have numerous guiding principles that I try to live by, and today I want to introduce you to one of the most important – the philosophy of Kaizen.
Out of the blue, my first encounter with the Japanese philosophy Kaizen (pronounced KAI-ZEN), came in my 2nd year of university in an Operations Management class held by one of my favourite lecturers, Professor Paul Cousins. Since that day, I’ve studied the philosophy of Kaizen and it has become a big part of my life, and is responsible for some of my biggest achievements in life so far, including:
•Finishing university as one of the top 30 students from 18,000, as well as being the highest ranked student in my faculty.
•Travelling to 50 countries, including a 20,000km hitchhiking adventure across North America.
•Starting a business and establishing the first Podstel in Bucharest.
•Creating key stone habits around health, work and productivity, including quitting alcohol.
I owe a lot of my successes to Kaizen so I’d like to use the rest of this article as an opportunity to share my view on the philosophy, its benefits, some examples, as well as how you can apply the philosophy of kaizen to everyday life.
What is Kaizen?
With its roots in manufacturing, Kaizen (改善) grew in popularity shortly after WWII on the back of the rebuild of many major industries in Japan. It roughly translates to change (Kai), and to become good (Zen) or more simply put, “change for the better.”
At its core kaizen is all about continuous improvement, achieved through small but manageable steps over time in a step like fashion. The graph below illustrates the mechanics of Kaizen and continuous improvement.
Benefits of Kaizen
Although Kaizen is a philosophy practiced by major corporations such as Toyota and much has been written about it in the business sense, I believe it’s an incredibly powerful concept that is highly applicable to many aspects of life.
The philosophy of Kaizen can be useful for:
•Learning new skills.
•Completing ambitious projects – e.g. writing a book, running a marathon, travelling to every country in the world.
•Breaking old habits and addictions.
•Creating solid habits.
•Starting your own business.
In addition, by following the principles of kaizen, you can expect to experience the following benefits:
Faster Feedback & Testing – Kaizen is all about testing assumptions quickly and taking small steps. That means that you can gather quick feedback using kaizen. The more feedback you receive, and the quicker you act on that feedback, the better you become.
Save Time & Money – Kaizen isn’t obsessed with the end result, but rather the process, which means that if effective and continuous feedback loops are installed in the process, problems are more likely to be given chance to surface, potentially saving time, money, and the problems experienced if we only gather feedback at the end of the process.
Adaptable to Change – The essence of Kaizen is that change can happen at any point in time. Since Kaizen is all about small steps and checks, it makes it easy to correct, adapt and pivot at any point in the process. I.e. it’s much easier to undo one task, than it is 20 tasks that are built on top of each other.
Less Overwhelmed – Kaizen advocates to break down the master task/goal into small, manageable and achievable components. By doing this, the enormity of the master task is diluted and portioned out. Since we are dealing with smaller, manageable components, we’re much more likely to take action on the micro tasks, with each completed task instilling us with more confidence and enthusiasm, rather than trying to tackle a big overwhelming project all at once.
Less Procrastination – As a follow on from being less overwhelmed, breaking down a project into small, achievable components that are hard to say no also lowers the activation energy required to start the task. When the task is so small and straightforward, you are less likely to find a reason to procrastinate, and are essentially tricking your mind into action.
The Kaizen Mindset
We live in a society that celebrates perfectionism and success, and views failure as something that we must avoid at all costs. We’ll do anything to avoid failing, because showing people that we’ve failed shows weakness, and that’s deemed negative. However, Kaizen flips that way of thinking on its head because realising that we need to make mistakes to become better and accepting that it’s inevitable that we fail is inherently engrained in the kaizen mindset.
To adopt the kaizen mindset, we all have to agree on a few things. Here are some of the key characteristics of the kaizen mindset:
You Are Eternally Unfinished – Adopting a mindset of Kaizen requires that you are in pure acceptance of your weaknesses and that there is no point of completion somewhere in the future – there will always be something you can improve.
You Must Start Now – Following on from accepting your weaknesses, kaizen requires that you must start now, even if you’re not ready, because there is never a better time than now to act. Under no circumstances should you wait for the right time to start. The process of improvement requires that you do; not procrastinate.
You Must Start Small – Unrealistic and overly ambitious goals do not work with kaizen. Kaizen is all about breaking down a seemingly huge task into lots of small, realistic and manageable components. The logic here is that the smaller the task, the better, because there’s less chance of failing and more chance of building a strong habit later.
Be Willing to Listen – Listening is a very important skill that’s engrained in the Kaizen mindset. Kaizen works so well because it encourages the process ensures the collection of consistent feedback throughout the cycle, but that feedback is only useful if you are willing to listen, take it into account and act upon it. If you’re too fixed in your own way of being and doing, then no feedback will help if you’re not willing to listen to it.
Beginner’s Mind – One of the most important components of Kaizen is that you go into everything you do with a beginner’s mind, exactly like the characteristics exhibited by a new born child learning to walk (example below). A person who adopts the child mind is willing to be vulnerable, accept criticism, and fail openly, often in public, knowing that this is making him better and better, not weaker.
Be willing to Fail – Adopting the kaizen mindset requires that you are open to lots of small, low-key failures. The idea is that a lot of short bursts of failures increase our exposure to failure, stunting the brain from stopping us from taking action, and giving us confidence to continue, since low-key change helps us circumnavigate the fear that blocks success and creativity.
Long Term Focus – Kaizen is not about short term gratification. You need to be patient and have the ability to think about the long term, willing to offset the temporary adversity that you face on your journey. The small steps on the journey guide you there, and keep you motivated, but ultimately a vision guides you there, and gives you a map that you can reverse engineer and work backwards from to create the smaller components and stepping stones.
Commitment to Kaizen – Kaizen isn’t just a process we adopt now and again, it’s a process that never ends. Kaizen is a combination of many small principles working together that we live by on a daily basis, which when approached in the right way, can be useful for helping us navigate the continuous roadblocks and uncertainties we face in life.
Kaizen In Action
Ok so now that we’ve discussed the benefits and the mindset surrounding Kaizen, I want to give you some real life examples kaizen, as well as a few stories from my own life.
As a Child
It wasn’t until I knew what kaizen was, that I realised I had been using this principle all of my life, even as a little child, and so have you. Kaizen can be seen in its purest form by watching a child learning to walk:
First of all, the child fully embraces the beginners mind. He doesn’t dwell on what it means to fail (they haven’t developed the ability to at this point), and instead he gets on with the learning. He starts using pure experimentation – rolling around on the ground, unconsciously working out what balance means, and how to manoeuvre his body. One day, after much trial and error (hopefully not so many bumps) and gathering feedback from his surroundings, he finds his way on to his front and slowly but surely starts working out how to crawl on all fours – he’s moving!
Slowly but surely, he navigates his way around the room, exploring here and there, when he eventually bumps into a table leg, reluctantly using it to prop himself up for the first time on his own two legs. He’s all wobbly, and he falls back down, but he doesn’t care, and he’s simply finding his groove. He knows it’s only a matter of months now until not long before he’ll be walking with pride, and with the support of many more tables, and his brothers and sisters, possibly even a child walking device, he’s guided around the room, and step by step and some months later, he now can walk.
In all of this, he was living by the kaizen mindset: willing to adopt a beginner’s mind, fail, learn through feedback and improve, continuously, until that one day came where he could finally walk. This is pure kaizen.
Over the course of my 3 years studying at university, I applied the philosophy of kaizen to create a system, that by the 3rd year of my studies, enabled me to organise my studies and guarantee a consistently high marks in every single exam, project or essay i completed.
I won’t go into intricate details here but I was obsessed with an iterative process of continuous improvement and systemising the way I worked at university. Through research and iteration, and continuously gathering feedback from my lecturers and professors, I created systems of best practice, documents and templates, which enabled me to receive a First Class Honours (the highest possible grade at an English University) in every single module, essay and exam I completed, resulting in me finishing at the top of my faculty and as one of 30 top students in the entire university of 18,000 students.
Kaizen played a huge role in many of my travel adventures and expeditions. The one case that stands out the most is when I spent 6 months hitchhiking across North America. When I began the journey, I knew I wanted to hitchhike the entire continent, but at the same time I also knew the huge magnitude of the task i was about to undertake.
Although it took 6 months, about 200 hitchhikes and 19,000km kilometres to hitchhike the whole of North America, when I started the journey, I never thought about the end destination. Instead I broke the journey down into a load of small but manageable chunks, and took the journey town by town. The focus was never on the future, but always where i was at in the moment, with my primary concern getting to the next town that was 60km down the road, rather than overwhelming myself with the magnitude of the entire journey.
To add to that, when i started out i was new to hitchhiking and didn’t know the best ways to increase my likelihood of getting picked up – my technique was rusty and my success rate was low. However, slowly but surely, I began testing and asking myself a lot of questions. Am i wearing the right clothes? Am i standing too close to the traffic lights? Am i radiating positivity? Is the hard shoulder wide enough and long enough for a car to pull in? These kinds of questions, mixed with practice on the road gave me the feedback that i needed to improve my pickup rate. Eventually, funnily enough, i worked out that waving a British flag instead of my thumb was a very effective way to get picked up in Canada and America.
In essence, achieving my mission, and my hitchhiking journey of 19,000kms across North America was a huge testament to continuous improvement, and the small successive wins I created for myself along the way that in turn helped build my confidence and enthusiasm.
Starting A Business
The final example, and probably the most powerful use of Kaizen in my life so far was the journey I’ve been on for the last 5 years with Podstel. In 2012, Podstel was simply an idea in my mind; a mission to adventure the world while researching and building our business plan and then set up a hostel at the end of it all.
I started the project with close to nothing but a couple of blank journals, visiting existing hostels and interviewing backpackers while i travelled to work out what made a great hostel. Over time, those journals filled up, I learned how to make a website, built a brand, formed a team gradually created a community and traction around the Podstel concept..
By 2015, our preliminary research was complete. Our team had visited hundreds of hostels, and decided to rent an apartment in Leipzig, Germany, and turn it into a mini hostel and beta testing of Podstel. We didn’t have much money, and rented one of our rooms on AirBnB to cover our monthly expenses. We’d regularly host CouchSurfers, sometimes up to 15 in our living room, and this is where we all learned what great hospitality meant, as well as securing investment for what would become our first Podstel from one of our guests, who believe it or not, CouchSurfed with us.
In late 2016, we secured a building in Bucharest, and set up the first Podstel! When we first moved in there were no systems in place, no schedules, structure, or plans in place and we were reacting on a daily basis to all the problems that would arise. However, over time, and in classic continuous improvement fashion, we introduced systems and procedures using the Kaizen model (explained below), and gradually improved the efficiency and effectiveness of our business.
It’s now 2018, coming up 6 years since we began on this incredible journey, and Kaizen is at the heart of everything we do at Podstel. We have become very adaptable to change and we’re not afraid of testing new ideas and projects. If there’s a new idea for a project, we will create a plan and put the idea out there in its simplest form, with the aim to gather some quick feedback. If the testing phase is a success, we’ll continue the cycle of gathering feedback and iterating original assumptions, using kaizen to incrementally improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the system. We’ve used time and time again to create all the protocols, systems, schedules, and processes that we use to run Podstel.
The Kaizen Model
Ok, now that we’ve looked at what kaizen can be used for, the benefits, the mindset required for kaizen, and some real examples of it in practice, let’s look at the 4 step model of Kaizen, which explains how we can apply the philosophy in day to day life.
The Kaizen model is a simple and continuous four step process that never ends.
1 – Plan
In this stage of the model, you start out by mapping our vision/end and work backwards to create a plan of action (including checklist points for gathering feedback) in a process of reverse engineering which breaks down that vision into small, manageable and achievable projects. This section of the kaizen model also involves conducting all the necessary primary and secondary research.
Useful questions here include:
What do I want to achieve?
What resources do I need?
What information do I need?
2 – Do
This stage of the model is all about action, and putting your plan in to place to achieve your vision/goal. The art here comes down to maintaining enthusiasm and reduce risk of quitting, by starting as small as possible. That means the smaller you start, and the smaller the steps you take with any goal you want to work towards, the more likely you are to succeed. Remember, not to forget to pat yourself on the back and celebrate your small successes as you go.
3 – Check
This stage is all about gathering feedback, by putting regular internal (personal assessments of your work) and external (opinions from anyone but you) checks in place. Throughout the process of kaizen, you must be asking yourself questions like: how can I gather feedback right now? How can I test what I’ve learned so far? How can I improve the process?
Also, remember that your plan is based on many assumptions and things are likely to go wrong meaning that your plan needs constant iteration and adjustment as the project goes on.
4 – Act
This stage is all about acting on the feedback we have received. You tested an assumption and gathered constructive and useful feedback, and now you’re using that feedback by applying it to the original assumption you were testing. Once the new feedback has been acted upon, the next
‘step’ cycle of the kaizen model begins.
Today, Kaizen is much more than a philosophy for me – it’s a way of life which i strive to live by it on daily basis. Even today, the act of writing this article was achieved by applying the principles of Kaizen – one word became one sentence; one sentence became one paragraph; one paragraph became this article.
Kaizen, just like life, is an iterative process. Every meaningful change starts with that one step, and it’s a journey made of many ups and downs that’s important not the destination. Of course, knowing where you’re going and having a vision is crucial, but it’s ultimately the little steps and small actions that get you there in the end.
Thank you Professor Cousins for being one of the most exciting and intriguing lecturers I had at university, stimulating my brain enough to listen to you in your Operations Management lectures, for without your input, I wouldn’t have been introduced to the life changing philosophy of Kaizen.
Thanks for reading! I’d love hear how (knowingly or not) you have used Kaizen in your life; so please write your stories in the comment below.
All the best, and have a great day,
written by Daniel Beaumont, Thursday 11th January 2018
About the Author
Hello everyone, I’m Daniel – a 27 year old writer and entrepreneur from the north of England, currently living in Bucharest, Romania, where I’m writing my first book and running a traveller’s house called Podstel.
Since 2012 I’ve been on a transformational journey across 45 countries on 5 continents. During my journey, I discovered that travel is a great catalyst for one’s personal growth.
By combining my love for travel, writing, personal development, I want to use The Zen Nomad to share my thoughts, ideas and philosophies to inspire others to embark on their own introspective travel journeys, and to use travel as a means of personal growth.
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