Book Club: "The Spirit of Kaizen"

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About the Dozuki Book Club: Your go-to place for industry books and resources. Our team works hard to curate knowledge from industry experts, letting you quickly identify key takeaways and start implementing solutions.

This Month: The Spirit of Kaizen: Creating Lasting Excellence One Small Step at a Time

Next Month: Standard Work is a Verb: A Playbook for Lean Manufacturing


As the title suggests, Kaizen is about making lasting change, one small step at a time. In this quick read, Dr. Robert Maurer takes Kaizen principles and practically applies to a variety of business areas, including employee health, problem-solving, company morale, and more. Maurer leverages his background in psychology to provide concrete evidence that Kaizen methodology works for a reason.

A Swift Introduction to Kaizen

Resist the impulse to perform total makeovers.

  • Our brains are built to resist “radical” change
    • Radical change incites fear and leads to creative paralysis
  • Misconception: Innovation means that you must deliver a dramatic, sweeping change in a short amount of time
    • Innovation in of itself isn’t a bad thing, but thinking that it’s the only option for survival and growth is
  • Kaizen asks for small, manageable steps towards improvement
  • Literally translated, Kaizen means “good change”
  • During WWII, the U.S. created Training Within Industry - this taught organizations how to be more efficient
    • Resist the impulse to perform total makeovers
      • Instead, tackle small, manageable tasks to create sustainable improvements

How Kaizen Works

Our brains are wired to respond to change with fear.

  • Most rational business decisions are done in the cerebral cortex
  • Change is responded to by the amygdala, which also processes fear
    • Routine and sameness makes the amygdala feel safe
    • Change creates fear, which in turn impedes good decision making
Key Takeaway

Fear impedes good decision making. Large changes naturally create fear in our brain, it’s best to break down change it to small, insignificant steps, to help us solve problems more rationally.

Boost Morale

Rather than incentives, what people really want is to be valued, appreciated, and heard.

  • Small interactions with employees can have a huge impact on their sense of feeling valued
  • Good leaders take advantage of small moments to connect with people at work
  • Managing Difficult People:
    • Difficult people are the unacknowledged moral killers of organizations
    • Use emotional neutrality as a tool to deal with difficult people
      • Small interactions are the ones that typically indicate how people behave in difficult situations
      • Allows you to lead by example and show your employees how to handle similar situations
      • It keeps both parties calm, creating distance to easily address the problem at hand
      • Suggestions for improvements need to be handled skillfully and promptly
      • Employees can become discouraged about making suggestions if they perceive that they won’t be considered or are always met with rejection
      • Even poor suggestions can be an indication that your training is ineffective and offer a chance to retrain employees
Key Takeaway

Employees want to be valued. Being authentic in receiving and documenting their suggestions costs very little and yields a high return, letting managers display empathy for others. Invest in their success and don’t shoot down ideas too quickly — you will receive enormous dividends and loyal, happier employees.

Cut Costs

In Kaizen organizations, every employee is expected to remain constantly alert for wasted resources.

  • Offer Small Rewards or None At All
    • This can be seen as counterintuitive but it works, creating intrinsic motivation among employees
    • This is in juxtaposition to extrinsic motivation (often larger monetary rewards)
  • Extrinsic Motivation Doesn’t Work Because it Implies...
    • People should not collaborate, instead, they should protect their own ideas to keep the rewards to themselves
    • Small suggestions aren’t worth making because they don’t justify large rewards
    • Employees are lazy and need incentives
  • Intrinsic Motivation Works Because it Implies...
    • Employees don’t need rewards to offer valuable suggestions
    • Good ideas don’t need to be associated with a single person and you should collaborate when you can
    • All suggestions, even small ones, are valuable
  • Ask Small Questions
    • Big questions about improvement are scary and rarely lead to success
    • Small questions are approachable and not scary
      • Example: “How could you save the company $1 a day?”
    • These types of questions are easier to answer and lead to great insights and cost-savings trends
  • Be Receptive to Suggestions
    • Set up procedures to manage suggestions efficiently
    • Don’t confuse simplicity with stupidity — naive questions could be the spark of genius improvements
    • Even bad suggestions offer an opportunity to retrain workers that you didn’t know need training — this is its own form of Kaizen
Key Takeaway

Offering large rewards and asking for big suggestions can actually impede good ideas. Be receptive to small ideas and never put an idea down, even if it’s a bad one.

Improve Quality

Be transparent, not perfect.

  • A perfectionist attitude doesn’t eliminate mistakes, it just drives them underground
    • Not punishing those who submit mistakes is crucial
      • You can still provide retraining for employees who have made mistakes
  • Taiichi Ohno famously implemented his “andon” cord in Toyota factories to stop the assembly line every time a mistake was recognized
    • This was counterintuitive to the logic of time, but it was more efficient in the long run because it avoided higher future repair expenses

Avoid Mental Blindfolds

Mental blindfolds are common thought processes that incorrectly justify the wrong actions when trying to improve quality.

  • Don’t Mess with Success
    • Don’t ever assume that everything is perfect just because things are going well
    • Times of good grace are opportunities to sharpen and stay competitive
  • We’re Too Smart for Mistakes
    • Kaizen assumes human beings are fallible (they definitely are) and then builds systems to compensate
  • Everyone is Responsible
    • Too much sharing of responsibility dilutes its sense of importance, causing individuals to resist taking action
    • Kaizen is everyone owning the responsibility for mistakes and sharing the resources to solve them
  • Rush to Market
    • Being first does not necessarily mean being the best
    • Let mistakes change your criteria for success or failure
Key Takeaway

Kaizen is about recognizing small mistakes for the improvement potential that they offer, and not driving them underground or treating them as taboo. Humans mess up, successful businesses accept this and proactively address issues. Handling smaller mistakes immediately is much more efficient and easier than trying to solve one large accumulation of mistakes down the line.

Develop New Products and Services

True inventiveness and creativity comes when we are curious in nature and inquire about the small things, not staring at a blank whiteboard trying to spark genius.

  • Train Yourself in the Curiosity Response
    • Seek out conversation (non-business setting) with people who have different opinions
    • Don’t argue, ask open-ended questions that imply no judgment and allow perspectives to be shared freely
  • Cross Collaborate
    • Force mixing and mingling of people from different specialties
      • Water cooler talk is good for this
    • Bringing together different perspectives allows for problems to be viewed from new angles, leading to innovative solutions
  • Resolve the Mistake Paradox
    • Nobody likes mistakes, but innovation requires trial and error
    • Use pilot programs to learn from mistakes in controlled environments
  • Patience, the Cousin of Creativity
    • Seeing the results of creativity, we assume that they come quickly, yet this is seldom true
  • Ask Small Questions
    • Big questions can often paralyze us
    • We can’t resist answering small questions
Key Takeaway

Being creative and innovative requires that you seek out alternative perspectives and avoid forcing big ideas. Cultivate a habit of patience and curiosity that invites good ideas and suggestions.

Increase Sales

Think small thoughts.

  • Change your inner dialogue and acknowledge rejection as a certainty
  • Connect Sales with Values
    • In a world of rejection, connecting success to purpose and values can make rejection easier to handle
Key Takeaway

Sales is a tough professional role that naturally leads to rejection. Acknowledge this fact and proactively take action to turn this challenge into a positive experience for your employees.

When Small Steps Are Too Hard

  • Obstacle 1 - Being Overwhelmed
    • Crisis incites fear and leads to the thinking we need to make radical changes
      • Start with insignificant improvements, not to save real money, but to train the brain to be on the lookout for other small improvements to make — this will have a rippling effect
  • Obstacle 2 - Fear and Anxiety
    • It’s impossible to come up with a creative solution in this mental state
      • Use small steps to relax (i.e. breathing exercises, short walks) before trying to solve complex problems
  • Obstacle 3 - Isolation
    • Crush the myth of self-reliance
    • Successful people rely on networks and communities
      • Small steps: Ask yourself twice a day, “Who could I ask for help?” and “What kind of help could I ask for?”
  • Obstacle 4 - Looking for Answers in the Wrong Places
    • When our goals are too difficult, we distract ourselves by solutions that are more comfortable
    • Take time to identify and clarify your goals first, this ensures that your actions are the best fit for achieving goals, and not just what is easiest
Key Takeaway
There are recurring obstacles to effectively implementing Kaizen, but they are surmountable if you understand that these are just common, internal scripts that we feed ourselves.
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Written by Dozuki

Founded in 2011, Dozuki has been the leader in connected worker solutions for over a decade. We’ve helped hundreds of companies plan, implement, and scale our frontline digital transformation solution.

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