“Kaizen” = The KEY To Self-Improvement

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I honestly forget where I first heard the Japanese term “kaizen” (just racked my brain for ten minutes and…nothing!), but the very second I heard it, I knew it’d stick with me. The philosophy of kaizen is one I now incorporate into every facet of my daily life.

Since direct translations between languages are often not possible, the best English translation of kaizen is:

Kaizen = a continuous, long-term, incremental approach to improvement

The notion of kaizen is tricky to explain since it’s really a whole bunch of ideas piled into one word, but this YouTube video provides an expert summary:

In the video, the narrator explains the origin of kaizen:

A few years after World War II ended, an American named Edwards Deming came to Japan to help the Japanese rebuild their manufacturing facilities. Dr. Deming was largely responsible for the improvements in American manufacturing during World War II, so the Japanese were eager to hear what he had to say. Deming told the Japanese factory workers that, if they wanted to produce great products, they had to just ask themselves one thing every day: ‘What extremely small step can I take to improve the process or product?’ The Japanese bought into Deming’s philosophy, and they even gave it a name: ‘kaizen.’ Through the application of kaizen, Japan would rise up from the rubble of World War II and become a manufacturing superpower by the end of the 20th century.

Possibly, you’ve heard or read about this philosophy in relation to Toyota; the company has touted its embodiment of kaizen in order to achieve the most efficient manufacturing model.

Clearly, kaizen is often associated with business models, but psychologist Robert Maurer, Ph. D., applies the philosophy to human psychology in his book One Small Step Can Change Your Life.

In English, we have the word “improvement,” but what I love about the definition of kaizen is that it encompasses so much more. Adding the words “continuous,” “long-term,” and “incremental” to my understanding of “improvement” has completely reshaped my outlook on self-betterment. Allow me to elaborate…

The idea that improvement should be continuous and long-term is freeing.

As it’s often tritely said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” We all know this, but if you’re like me you often want instant results. The emphasis of the continuous and long-term aspects of improvement encompassed in the definition of kaizen is both freeing and inspiring. It’s absolutely okay not to be the best version of yourself right this very moment as long as you’re continually aiming to be better.

The reality that any change must be incremental is reassuring.

Further, it’s important not to take on or expect too much when striving for some type of life improvement. Drastic and impulsive changes are often not lasting. Another trite reminder: “Slow and steady wins the race!”

One personal example of kaizen in my life:

As mentioned earlier, I’ve incorporated the kaizen mindset into almost every realm of my life, but I will not bore you with too many mundane details. But, if you’re a curious cat, here’s the breakdown of just one example…

Several months ago (about the time I learned the philosophy of kaizen), I decided it was time to reevaluate my shopping habits. The reality was this: I was buying new clothes (rarely, but it was still happening), yet I was regularly wearing less than a quarter of the clothes in my closet. Why, I asked myself, was I habitually purchasing new items? I wanted to stop automatically  buying clothes, so I began to take “continuous,” “long-term,” and “incremental” steps towards my goal. This is what I’ve done so far:

  1. I unsubscribed from every clothing store’s emails. If I didn’t know JCrew was having a 50% off sale, I’d be less tempted to buy clothes I truly didn’t need.
  2. I stopped casually browsing clothing websites in my free time. Often, when I was engaged in some mundane task at work (like grading papers…blech!), I’d instinctually pop open a new tab just to “window” shop. But again…marketing is no joke, and those sales would really suck me in!
  3. I decided to embrace the idea of “shopping in my closet.” Since I was only wearing a fraction of my clothes, I found and re-purposed some real gems!
  4. I relished in my newfound materialistic freedom. When I was shopping more, I was also spending time trying on all of my purchases, creating room in my tiny closet, making choices about which items to keep and which to return, and walking to post offices and stores to return items. Less shopping = more relaxing!
  5. Finally, I made the mental commitment only to buy items that are either 1) incredibly special and/or tied to some memory or 2) absolutely necessary. This means shopping in boutiques on vacation and buying that one special dress that I’ll cherish and keep for years and years to come. Each time I wear it, I’ll remember the feelings and memories I experienced on that vacation! Also, this means coming to terms with the difference between “need” and “want.” I may want new clothes, but the items in my current wardrobe are likely fine and don’t need replacing.

The outcome: It sounds cheesy (so much trite-ness and cheese in this post!), but I feel freer and lighter. (My wallet, on the other hand, feels heavier!) I’m also happy to consider myself a work in progress. Baby steps are still steps! A year from now, my habits and beliefs in this area of my life may look completely different, but I’m content with the process of constant change towards betterment.

I’m by no means suggesting that everyone adopt this same process, re: shopping. However, I do encourage you to consider the positive impacts the “continuous,” “long-term,” “incremental” philosophy of kaizen may have on one/many/all aspects of your life!

Bottom line: When you try to make a quick change, your best-laid plans may backfire. If long-term habit change is your goal, get comfortable with a kaizen-like process.


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