The core basis of the lean production system and the lean startup philosophy is the mindset of continuous improvement. It’s the only way to achieve the long term company goal. Continuous improvement refers to constant improvements of products, processes and services over time, with the goal of improving product performance, customer service and workplace productivity. You have to be aware that there is always room for improvement, there is always a way to do it better.
In business, constant improvement especially refers to focusing on activities that add value, and reducing everything else (the so called waste). Value added activities are those things that customers are willing to pay for, while everything else is a waste. And all waste should be eliminated (deleted, delegated), simplified (automated, reduced) or integrated (merged) by the Kaizen mindset.
Kaizen in business
Kaizen is the Japanese word for a “good change” (Kai = change, Zen = good). It means constant improvement of all company functions, at every hierarchical level, from CEO to the least paid employees. It doesn’t matter if the change happens one time or is constant, big or small, as long as it is a change for the better.
The result of Kaizen should be a better workplace, a safer environment, elimination of hard work, teaching people how to scientifically innovate and test new ideas, reducing waste, increasing productivity, optimizing the supply chain and sales channels, and so on.
You can always do it better, make it better, and improve it, even if things are not broken. In Kaizen, problems are seen as opportunities to improve.
Kaizen is usually carried out by an individual in an organization, a group of people or, even better, an improvement suggestion system. The Kaizen methodology is based on making little changes, monitoring the results and then readjusting. Having a strategic system for constantly identifying potential small improvements yields great results in the long-term overall improvement.
There are three techniques frequently used in connection to Kaizen, all with the purpose of standardizing processes, measuring operations and innovating for improvement. For a company, implementing these techniques means less waste, more satisfied people, better commitment and retention of employees, increased competitiveness and customer satisfaction, and, last but not least, improved problem-solving skills and teamwork quality.
- The first technique is called PDCA cycle. The PDCA cycle is a system for constant improvement, where P stands for Problem finding/Plan, D for Display/Do, C for Clear/Check and A for Acknowledge/Act.
- The second technique is called the 5 Whys analysis, intended to identify the root cause of the problem. If you want to really improve, you must find the real source of the problem.
- And the third technique is called the 5S program. The five S’s stand for seiri (tidiness), seiton (orderliness), seiso (cleanliness), seiketsu (standardization) and shitsuke (discipline). In English, the words could also be sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain.
In the following blog posts, we will talk more about all three techniques and how can they be used in our personal lives. But now let’s go back to Kaizen.
If a company follows the Kaizen philosophy, a person can achieve the “Zenkai” title (an ancient master famous for not wasting even a drop of water). The title goes to a person who makes a large contribution for the successful implementation and execution of Kaizen in the company. You should also be “Zenkai – master of no waste” in your own life.
Alongside training, excellent communication and the improvement suggestion system, becoming a Kaizen type of company demands a significant change in the company’s culture. Becoming successful in your personal life also demands a significant change in your mindset.
In the western management practice, a concept similar to Kaizen is the so called “learning organization”. It’s a way for an organization to remain competitive in the business environment by constantly transforming itself. The five main characteristics of a learning company are: shared vision, personal mastery, team learning, systematic thinking and mental models (the right mindset).
As we can see, the word mindset is mentioned very frequently, so let’s see what it’s all about.
The growth and fixed mindset
Stanford professor Dr. Carol Dweck has found out that the biggest difference between successful and unsuccessful people lies in the mindset. You can either have a fixed mindset or a growth one.
If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your character and potential are unchangeable, have been “written in stone” since birth. You assume that they cannot be modified or improved in a meaningful way. Thus any success in that kind of mindset is the result of inherited talent, the given resources and the environment you were born in. Instead of thinking of how to improve yourself, you hope that other people will be less competent than you.
Let’s look at a practical example. Intelligence. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that intelligence is a static thing. This usually leads to avoiding challenges, seeing efforts as fruitless, ignoring useful feedback, feeling threatened by others’ success and giving up easily when challenges arise. Furthermore, it leads to a desire to only look smarter, but not really improve yourself. The sad final result of the fixed mindset is that people simply don’t develop their intellectual competences over time. They stay fixed, like their mindset is fixed.
The second option is having a growth mindset. It means that you believe in personal evolution and that you can improve your character by working on yourself. If you have a growth mindset, you see yourself as being at a specific starting point with the option to constantly experiment, test new ideas and improve yourself – your skills, beliefs, and competences.
In the growth mindset, intelligence is not a static thing but rather one that can be developed. Instead of only trying to look smart, it leads you towards developing intelligence by constantly learning, thus improving yourself overall. Another positive result is also the mindset of embracing challenges, a greater persistence, seeing effort as the path to mastery, learning from criticism and being inspired by others’ success. You see everything as a skill, and every skill can be practiced and improved.
It’s obvious that the fixed mindset leads to hiding your flaws, doing only things that you are naturally good at, feeling defined by failures, being unwilling to improve your relationships, not testing new things and experimenting, and feeling bad if everything doesn’t go as planned, even if you have learned something new.
On the other hand, with a growth mindset, flaws and problems are only opportunities to improve. Unknown and new things bring learning opportunities, mastery leads to passion and purpose, and every failure is only a temporary setback.
You know you can refine relationships with other people in your life. Nothing is a given and everything can be improved. In the end, the process matters much more than the final outcome (if it systematically leads to a better outcome in the long run).
The growth mindset therefore leads to greater personal success, improvement of self-esteem and self-confidence, better relationships, constant learning, avoiding perfectionism and becoming the best version of yourself.
How do you know if you have a growth mindset? That is when you…
…never try to look superior in favor of learning something new.
My personal example
I won’t bother you with all the details, but I was born with big ambitions and under some circumstances weren’t very favorable for prospering in the 21st century. To make it short as possible: ten years ago I had zero money, was extremely overweight and couldn’t speak English or even use an e-mail. The main reason for that was being born in a broken patriarchal family in a declining socialist country.
Therefore the only way for me to get a better life was leaning on my own growth mindset. Even without knowing the psychological term, I pictured living my life with a fixed mindset. What I saw was an uneducated, poor, unhealthy, violent and depressed man. I instantly knew that life was too precious to live that way. But I had nothing to lean on, no assets, no knowledge, no mentors, nothing (except for my grandmother who always supported me).
The only exit I saw for myself was to prove myself exceptionally in all areas of life. That’s how my growth mindset had been born. I decided to:
- Find my talents and areas of interest to develop my skills strategically
- Learn from every person I meet by asking tons of questions
- Find a way to speak to as many successful businessmen as possible
- Read as much books as possible instead of watching TV etc.
- Travel and think in order to become more tolerant, peaceful and positive
- Develop encouraging relationships and find a more supportive environment
- Use technology and globalization to my advantage
- Become better and better in every possible way
I decided for the Kaizen and growth mindset without even knowing it. I have a long way to go, since personal development never ends, but if I look back on the past ten years, it was more than worth it. Instead of surrendering to the probably very negative outcome of my life, I decided to put all my efforts into changing my predetermined destiny. And so far, I am doing okay.
Whatever your position is, always choose the growth mindset. Let Kaizen be an important part of your life. And be very happy that you live in the 21st century, where the Kaizen mindset really does give the best results. In the past, things were truly much more fixed. You weren’t able to choose between dozens of religions, political beliefs, industries, markets and occupations. Back then, there was a much bigger probability of you becoming what your parents were. But now you have endless options to find yourself and develop your talents to the full.
Rules of personal Kaizen
I have set some basic rules for my personal Kaizen in order to bring the best possible results.
Talent is important
We definitely need the growth mindset, knowing that we can improve ourselves in all areas of life, but talent is also extremely important. Before starting to improve, you should know very well where your talents lie, which fields you can really excel in and where you can improve yourself but will never really shine. We all have talents, we just have to try hundreds of different things and find what we are naturally good at. In lean philosophy, that means search before execution, experimenting before heavily investing your time and energy.
Passion comes with mastery, that’s for sure. But you must know what you are naturally good at, because you unlock your greatest potential if you’re making small improvements where your talents are. Of course you should not forget about other parts of life (health, relationships, spirituality…), but life is only long enough to really master one or two things. That is where the margin of improvement is the greatest.
The environment is important
In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell has presented his research on how we are a product of the environment much more than we might think. Primary and secondary socialization, the current social system, market trends, wealth and position of the family we are born in, demographic changes, cultural inheritance, access to assets – they all define our potential.
When we find our talent and the field where we can flourish, it is extremely important that we situate ourselves into an environment where we can shine. We cannot choose where we are born, but we can definitely choose the best environment for us to prosper as adults.
Your spouse, your friends, your working environment, your home, your country, the area you live in, the industry you have chosen, the partners you work with, the media you read, the computer you use, the structure of folders you have on your computer, the cleanliness of your office, the people you meet… it all affects your potential.
Much like our intelligence, character and potential are not fixed, our environment is also not fixed.
The environment we live in is not fixed. We choose the environment we work in. We choose our surroundings.
There is always a move to make
You always have a choice. You can always do something to make your life better. You can always choose to do a positive thing for yourself and for others. Life is not fair. Life is tough. Sometimes life treats you like a piece of s***. But you can always make a move.
There is always a move for a better life.
- Do something for your health.
- Learn something new.
- Give something to the society.
- Improve your relationships.
- Smile more.
- Fix your posture.
- Save some money.
No matter how deep in s*** you are, there is always a small step you can take towards a better life. You should never feel like you have no options or that you are completely stuck in a situation. That is the first rule of the personal power and improvement mindset. There is always a move you can make. The final checkmate comes when you go underground, and no sooner.
You should have really big dreams. But you should always take small steps. The Kaizen mindset is about constant small incremental improvements. Over the years, small improvements add up to a big difference. You can be easily manipulated by an over-night success story presented in the media, which rarely happen in real life.
Your starting point does partially define your potential (who you were born to, where you were educated etc.). Your environment from a young age does determine your character to a certain point. But when you are an adult, it is not fixed anymore. It can be changed step by step. Maybe you won’t become Bill Gates or Buddha, but you can definitely dramatically improve your life.
Find the next small step to innovate your way to a better life.
Validated learning is the key
When you start making small improvements, experiments and tests (behavior changes, applying new knowledge etc.) you make a lot of mistakes. You face many obstacles, problems and disappointments in the search for your better self. It’s not easy, but it is worth it.
Let me give you an example. In my search for the perfect diet, I had been vegan, vegetarian, fruitarian; I had gone through a macrobiotics diet and a standard diet. I have made many mistakes until I found the diet that suits me best. And there is still room for improvement. There is always room for improvement.
What you have to avoid at all cost is taking “learning” as an excuse. Oh, something didn’t work out, but I have learned something. And then you go back to the way things had been. What you should look for is the so called validated learning.
Validated learning means that while you do find out that something doesn’t work, you also gain knowledge and insight for what to do next. When an improvement doesn’t work out, you must get ideas for what could work and what to do next. Otherwise the experiment was a waste.
Manage your negative inner voice
The greatest obstacle to having the growth mindset is your critical inner voice. The inner voice that is constantly saying you can’t do it, it’s not worth it, you are who you are and learn to live with it. The inner voice that leads to a belief that things are given and you have very limited influence over your life. We all have that inner voice, and we all must learn how to manage it.
Cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralizing, praising the negative and minimizing the positive, labeling people and jumping to conclusions, lead to freezing in place instead of taking action. It all starts with your mindset, so if you want to implement the Kaizen philosophy in your life, you have to start working on your beliefs.
The best way to change or leverage your beliefs is to take action.
An active step towards implementing the Kaizen philosophy in your life is making a Kaizen list. A Kaizen list consists of prioritized potential improvements in your life, as identified by yourself and people closest to you in your life.
First, determine different areas of life where you can improve:
- Your personality – knowing yourself, your beliefs, values, behavioral patterns, daily habits, your ideal-self etc.
- Your environment – country, city, home, office etc.
- Health and primary needs (body)
- Fitness / Sports
- Other (sleep, sex, breathing…)
- Relationships and people skills (love and belonging)
- Family (primary, secondary)
- Money and wealth
- Career, achievements and respect
- Emotions (your emotional body)
- Competences – Intelligence, knowledge and skills (your intellectual body)
- Formal education (degree, certificates…)
- Informal education
- Fun, creativity and travel
- Spirituality, self-actualization and giving back to the world (your spiritual body)
- Technology as a leverage for being more productive on all areas of life
In the next step, gather suggestions for improvements. People love giving advice, so that step should be easy. Don’t feel uncomfortable. Just tell people you really appreciate their opinion, that they know you very well and ask if they could give you five ideas for how you could improve yourself, your work or something else. Make a list of:
- Your own suggestions
- Suggestions from your spouse
- Suggestions from your personal friends
- Suggestions from your business partners (for improvements in business)
- Suggestions from other people you trust
Prioritize the improvements:
- You shouldn't make too many changes in your life at once. Select one to three improvements that you can start working on and that will have the greatest positive impact in your life.
- You shouldn't make too big changes in one area of your life at once. You have to build strong foundations. Therefore determine a tiny step for every improvement you would like to make in your life.
Constantly update your personal Kaizen list. Systematically gather feedback for constant improvement throughout your life. Remember that the journey never ends. When you have trouble with discipline, remember that everyday is a new beginning, a new opportunity to make a step forward.
You can help yourself with the Excel spreadsheet below:
You can also make a mind map. Here is my mind map for this year’s improvements:
Be Zenkai. Become the best possible version of yourself in this life!