Kaizen is the Japanese word for a “good change” (Kai = change, Zen = good). In business, it means constant improvement of all company functions, at every hierarchical level, from the CEO to the least paid employee. It doesn’t matter if the change is big or small, as long as it’s a change for the better. All the best companies in the world are Kaizen companies. Therefore, it’s mandatory to operate with the exactly same philosophy in your personal life, especially if you want to be really successful and achieve your peak potential.
There is always room for improvement, there is always a way to do things better.
Unfortunately, in everyday life it’s not as easy to constantly improve yourself and proactively adjust to environmental changes (relationship dynamics, market trends etc.) as it may sound. Whenever and wherever you try to implement change, resistance is always present. Pushing things out of status quo and out of established habits always demands a lot of courage, stamina, resilience, persistence and willpower.
To follow the Kaizen philosophy more easily and to make it a strong constant in your life, there are some ground rules that you should consider and embrace. This rules will also help you deal with resistance and the status quo inertia better. As a matter of fact, you should constantly remind yourself of the Kaizen ground rules and revise them over and over again, especially when your mind gets fixated on certain ideas, stuck in a vacuum or when you lose the motivation and willpower to implement improvements. These ground rules will always help you to open your mind and boost you with additional motivation when you find the resistance devastating.
Since there are quite a few Kaizen rules, they’re divided into three sections:
- Part 1: Kaizen rules – The mindset you should have
- Part 2: Kaizen rules for teams – The mindset successful teams have
- Part 3: Anti-Kaizen – The most frequent mindset that prevents you from progressing in life
The Kaizen rules you should never forget
Kaizen ground rules can be your best friend many times, especially in tough situations, helping you to keep your mind open and focus on solutions, not on problems. When you feel stuck on fixed ideas that don’t work or can be improved, just revise the Kaizen rules and refocus your mind on more positive vibrations.
The best thing you can do is to download and print the rules and stick them to a visible place in your home or office. When stuck, look at the list, read the rules, and you will refocus your brain to the path towards the solution and hopefully stop feeling sorry for yourself.
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Kaizen rules – Your personal mindset for constant improvement
There were 10 Kaizen ground rules originally. But of course a kaizen had to be done to the Kaizen rules. So here are the 20 rules of the mindset that you should hold to constantly improve yourself and the environment you operate in, be it your home or working environment.
- Don’t try to justify the past and the so-called best practices. Start by questioning the best practices.
- Discard your fixed ideas. Always keep your mind open to change.
- See waste and problems as an opportunity.
- You develop wisdom when faced with hardship.
- Maintain a positive attitude.
- Do not make excuses. Think of how to do it, not why it cannot be done. Eliminate can’t.
- Don’t blame your environment.
- Creativity before capital. Do not spend money for kaizen, use your wisdom.
- Seek the wisdom of ten people rather than the knowledge of one.
- Work smart. Understand data and principles. Be data-driven.
- Work smart. Understand the process and the environment. Then go to action.
- Learn by taking action. It’s called validated learning.
- Set high standards. Think big. And have a strong why.
- Choose a simple solution, not the perfect one.
- Do it right away, even if you only aim at the 50 % target.
- If you make a mistake, correct it right away.
- Aim for long-term sustainability of gains.
- Use fear as your compass.
- Kaizen is endless.
- Have fun.
Don’t try to justify the past and the so-called best practices. Start by questioning the best practices.
All cultures, no matter how big a group of people (even an entity as small as a family), have some kind of traditions and a cultural system designed to respect the old and carry over values and best practices from generation to generation. The cultural system can include everything from rituals, symbols, unwritten rules, sometimes even fairy tales, all the way to more formal etiquette and customs.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; as long as the culture isn’t toxic and doesn’t stop progress and improvement. And unfortunately it often does. When old rituals and “best practices” become an excuse for status quo, it’s everyone’s duty to challenge it in a respectful and integrative way. Let me emphasize that again: in a respectful and integrative way.
In many different groups, you can often hear thinking like we’ve always done it that way, do exactly what your superior says because they know best, and so on. It’s very easy to justify and rationalize “best practice” pressure from the environment. It’s really hard to be a misfit who wants to do it differently. Well, if they’ve done it like that for decades, how can I be smarter than that? Wrong. No matter how good and strong the tradition, there is always a way to do things a better way; otherwise we would still live in caves. Everything that currently exists and is known as best practice, well, it can be done better. You can do it better if you try hard enough.
Discard your fixed ideas. Always keep your mind open to change.
Much like the society has fixed ideas about how things should be done and your job is to challenge them, in the same way you, as an individual, have fixed ideas that you always have to challenge. Most often, you have fixed ideas about how to do things and what to value, simply because you’ve always done it that way (habits). Next to that, certain things were respected through your primary and secondary socialization (values) so consequently, it’s makes sense that you also respect those things now. You may be especially fixed in political, economic, sociological, technological and “how to do things” beliefs. But every fixed belief is preventing you from improving and becoming a better version of yourself.
- There certainly is a way to earn 10 times your current income.
- There certainly is a way to double your productivity and have a lot more free time.
- There certainly is a way for deeper and more meaningful relationships.
- There certainly is a way of contributing more to your company.
- There certainty is a way how you can be a better parent.
- There certainly is a way to develop your talents further, and so on.
- You just have to find the way.
Always keep your mind open to change. If you get fixated on a certain idea, start by asking yourself what would happen if you believed or did the opposite. Perform a mental exercise of defending the opposite belief or position than your current one. Let’s say that you’re a firm believer in capitalism. Do a mental exercise and speak in favor of socialism. Defend socialism. Just to open your mind. You probably know the saying that the real test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. So open your mind and discard any fixed ideas.
See waste and problems as an opportunity
How would you like to be put in front of a big opportunity? Once in a lifetime opportunity? Would you feel good and lucky to be in the right place at the right time and win big? Well, opportunities like that are right in front of you. You just have to see them. All the big problems your company is facing, all the big problems humanity is facing and even the problems in your personal life are nothing but big opportunities.
Problems are opportunities to bring out solutions, to contribute value, to grow, to improve yourself, to contribute ideas, develop your talents and consequently become better, more valuable, earn more, be more attractive, become stronger, and so on. If you want to be valuable to your family, company, society and so on, you have to solve problems, fix things and create value. It’s that simple. Problems are your biggest opportunity. The more problems you see, the more ideas you should have. You can always turn waste into gold.
- You can’t exercise because of an injury. There are always some exercises you can do. Figure it out with your doctor and share it with other people who have the same injury.
- Do you have bad posture and need a better chair? Invent a chair that’s gazillion times better for people with posture problems.
- Do you have problems finding a boyfriend or a girlfriend? Build a new solution for how people can meet. Oh sorry, Mark Zuckerberg already did that. Well, invent something better.
- Were you just ripped off at the auto repair shop? Study the subject and post YouTube videos on how not to get ripped off. Or maybe even open your own shop.
You develop wisdom when faced with hardship
If you want to constantly improve yourself and become better and better, you need to develop more and more wisdom. Wisdom is basically the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight with one additional important thing: Wisdom is about deep understanding of things, incorporating tolerance for the uncertainties of life as well as its ups and downs. Unfortunately (or not), the fastest way (if not maybe even the only way) you develop wisdom is when you’re faced with hardship. Hardship and tough situations in life. So you shouldn’t be scared of hardship, but instead see it as an opportunity for the fastest improvement and growth.
Here are a few reasons why wisdom is developed by hardship the fastest:
- You make good decisions based on extensive experience. You develop experience based on making bad decisions. Making several bad decisions slowly leads to making good and wise decisions. You can’t just be born wise.
- If you want to improve yourself, you have to tackle challenges that are more demanding than your competence level (learning zone), but not too demanding (panic zone) and absolutely not a piece of cake for you to solve (comfort zone). Things out of the comfort zone bring discomfort. Discomfort usually means hardship, especially if you decide to tackle a challenge that’s on the outer edge of your learning zone, just a step away from the panic zone, a zone where you would just run away from everything. The outer edge of the learning zone is also the point where you develop and progress the most.
- Tough situations can bring out either the best or the worst in you. Tough situations can deeply connect you with yourself, other people and life in general or, on the other hand, can break you and your relationships or even turn your friends into enemies. But only if you let it happen. If you are strong enough to do positive in tough situations, hardship can bring out the best in you and everything life has to offer. Things get demolished in hardship, but if you make the right steps, you’re presented with the opportunity to build something new and even more beautiful.
Maintain a positive attitude.
Maintaining a positive attitude is one of the most important rules of Kaizen. Only by keeping a positive mind can you live a positive life and see new opportunities; opportunities to grow, improve and live a better life. Only by keeping a positive outlook can you also foster the motivation to implement change and go after a better life or a better organization. Where there’s will, a way is always found. Positive attitude with strong hope is what fuels the strong enough will.
You’ve probably seen many tragedies with a happy ending or war movies based on true events, where the lead actors are stuck in an impossible situation. They may be stuck in the middle of the sea completely alone on a crushed boat or whatever. What every movie shows is that the first rule for surviving any hard situation is to maintain a positive attitude, and never let pessimism to kill your will. Without the positive attitude, you stop fighting, you stop innovating, you become blind to opportunities and you start wasting your life. Without a positive attitude, you’re nothing but a zombie. There’s always a move you can make towards the better, no matter how hard the situation is. Never forget that.
- Positive attitude = Seeing opportunities and solutions = Making a smart move = Success
- Negative attitude = Feeling sorry for yourself and giving up = Zombie land
Do not make excuses. Think of how to do it, not why it cannot be done. Eliminate can’t.
Even with a positive attitude, you can accept status quo somehow. You can stay positive, accepting the situation as it is and believing that an improvement simply can’t be done. That’s a completely wrong mindset, no matter how credible an excuse you have. There’s always an improvement that can be done if you keep innovating hard enough. Don’t use your brain cells to look for excuses for why things cannot be done. Eliminate can’t once and for all. Start thinking how to do it, if you really want it.
If your mind is stuck and you have no idea what your next step could be and all you can see are excuses, first start by un-stucking your mind. There are hundreds and hundreds of ways you can innovate and look for creative solutions. You can look at the situation from a different angle, you can look for simpler, faster, cheaper solutions, you can present things better, establish new relationships, and so on. If you have a positive attitude, if you care enough and if you keep your mind open, you can do it.
Remember, your mind is like a parachute, it only works when it’s open. If you have no idea what your next step should be, help yourself with different lists on how to improve ideas, just to open you mind.
Don’t blame your environment.
This is a hard one. You are very much a product of your environment. From your genes to the primary and secondary socialization, and the environment you operate in. A person’s behavior is always a result of their psychology and their environment – relationships, culture, processes etc. Usually a very simple formula is valid. A positive environment brings the positive out of people and a negative environment awakens toxic behaviors. If you were raised or put in a shitty environment, you have every right to blame it for your misfortune to a certain extent.
But don’t blame it. First of all, the most anti-Kaizen mindset is a victim mindset. If you see yourself as a victim of your own environment, you give away all your personal power for making a positive change in your life. It’s a very difficult truth, but whining, bitching and complaining won’t do any good in your life. It’s true that success brings success and problems bring even more problems, but you can invert a negative spiral with the right attitude and hard work.
No matter how difficult your situation is, to stop blaming your environment is the first step towards positive change. And the second thing is that it’s always better to light a single candle in your life and your environment than to curse the darkness. Focus on the positive and you will get the positive. Deal with your past once and for all, and start living in the present moment without blaming your environment.
Creativity before capital. Do not spend money for kaizen, use your wisdom.
There are more or less two ways of getting ideas for positive change. You can use money to hire people, new technologies etc. or you can use your own creativity. At some point, it makes sense to also pay for new ideas, knowledge and technologies. But you have to start with your own creativity. Why?
There’s no way a change will be implemented permanently, if there isn’t enough motivation on the table. If enough motivation is present, there are many creative ideas for positive change. If there are no internal ideas, there is probably no motivation. If there is no motivation, change won’t last for long. No matter how good the experts or the technology you pay, things will start to collapse and everything will go to its old ways if there isn’t enough motivation, together with all the possible persistence, resilience, consistency and discipline. The change must always start from within.
- Motivation = Many ideas for how to improve
- No motivation = No money can buy ideas good enough that will be implemented
If you start with your own creativity and need additional ideas and knowledge, it of course makes sense to hire new people or consultants or buy new technologies or whatever. It also makes sense to outsource and delegate things that aren’t your core value added. But in all other cases, make sure you always use creativity before capital.
Seek the wisdom of ten people rather than the knowledge of one.
In the information age, there’s a rule that you have to go straight for the best knowledge. We produce and duplicate so much information (most of it of shitty quality) that you can easily get lost in bad advice and useless information. A great majority of information is produced only for mental masturbation (entertainment). So you have to be extremely picky about what information you consume and how you build your infostructure.
Nevertheless, you should never seek the knowledge of only one person. Everyone has their own interpretation of the world (subjective reality) and everyone sees the situation from a different angle. The more angles you understand, the closer you can get to the objective reality. In addition to that, the more ideas you have on the plate from different people, the easier you can integrate them and innovate further.
When implementing change, you should also talk to and involve as many people as possible from different types of stakeholders, and follow additional Kaizen rules for teams, such as:
- Treat others like you want to be treated.
- Practice mutual respect every day. Work together.
- Create a tolerant environment.
- Improvement is not made in a conference room.
- Never leave in silent disagreement. Speak out if you disagree.
- Results should be publicly displayed.
- Share the success.
Involve as many people as possible and manageable. If people don’t know what’s happening and if they don’t contribute their ideas or express their fears, fears only grow into bigger monsters. When people aren’t involved, they will resist change even more, because they have no idea what to expect. When people don’t know what to expect, they imagine the worst.
Nevertheless, you still have to be aware that the more people you involve, the harder it is to manage the situation. You must not get confused by all the contradictory proposals, tensions and different views, but instead use them to find the best solutions possible. And don’t forget that you must have a democratic approach when searching for new solutions, but a dictatorship approach when implementing the best solutions found.
Work smart. Understand the process and the environment. Then do it.
You have to implement change in a smart, integrative and positive way. You can’t just make a positive change with brutal force. In order to implement change in a smart way, you first have to understand the process and the environment you operate in. Everything is a system and when you understand how the system works, you can really change it.
When you’re implementing positive change, you have to somehow outsmart the system, be it yourself as a biological/psychological system or a group of people as a social system. Everything resists change, everything tends to self-preserve and wants to keep the status quo. But if you understand the system, you can unleash a small change that will lead to more changes and to something better step by step.
To exaggerate a little bit: You don't take over the world with gaudy displays of violence. Real control is surgical. Invisible. It interferes only when necessary.
You can change only the things that you understand.
Work smart II. Understand the data and working principles. Be data-driven.
Every change must be data-driven. Your personal development must be data-driven. You somehow have to measure that you really found a new way to do things better. You can’t just assume. Because wrong assumptions are the mother of all f*ck-ups. So you must be obsessed with data, dashboards, metrics and measuring when doing improvements. You can improve only the things that you measure.
You must always know what exactly you’re trying to improve and based on which metrics. When implementing a new positive change, it should always be in connection with the one metric that matters most at a certain time in a certain situation. The fact is that you always have to put data before rhetoric when implementing changes.
Learn by taking action. It’s called validated learning.
You learn the most by doing things. It’s called “Genchi Gembutsu” in Japanese or “Go out of the building” in English. You can read 100 books on how to swim, but it can never compare to actually doing it. You can’t implement change based only on theoretical knowledge. You must become a master of validated learning and superior insights into how things work. Doing it and measuring data.
There are two different phases when you’re implementing change. One is the so-called the search mode and the second one is the execution mode. In the search mode, you look for new ways of doing things, you experiment and observe the reaction of the environment and gather feedback. You learn how much better the new way really is, and what forces are blocking you from permanently implementing the change. You gather ideas, are tolerant, democratic and open-minded. Once you find the best improvement and the best way to implement change, you can go into the execution mode. In the execution mode, you start measuring different things and you make sure that results are delivered, no matter what.
But you always have to work in a smart way. As mentioned before, you can’t implement positive change only with force, you have to prepare the terrain first.
Set high standards. Think big. And have a strong why.
When thinking about the changes you can make, you definitely have to set high standards and think big. Think big or don’t think at all. You must have a great vision and you must have a strong why that gets you exceptionally motivated for improvements and development. An identity shift is most often necessary for you to start implementing that kind of changes with high standards. You have to see yourself differently, you have to aim for something higher and you have to know why you want to achieve it. Many times, the best way to a positive change is to simply see yourself differently.
Let’s look at a few examples:
- See yourself as an important contributor in a company, not only an employee
- See yourself as an innovator, not just someone who obeys orders from superiors
- See yourself as an athlete, don’t just exercise a few times per week
- See yourself as an outstanding partner, not just a person with relationships
- And so on
Set high standards. Aim for the best. Get inspired and educated by the best. Have a strong answer to why you want to achieve it. Change yourself. Change your environment. Start innovating. Find new ways of doing things. But always start small!
Choose a simple solution, not the perfect one.
Timing is extremely important in life and when you implement change. Quality and creative solutions are also definitely important. But there’s no such thing as perfect timing. And there’s no perfect solution. Don’t procrastinate with improvements because you’re waiting for the perfect timing or solution. Choose a simple solution you can implement immediately and start implementing it. As already mentioned, you learn the most by taking action, not by theorizing about things.
Simplicity is always better than complexity. Implementing change is hard. Implementing complex change is even harder, if not close to impossible. Therefore, choose a simple solution you can start implementing immediately. A successfully implemented small change will motivate you to implement new changes. You will increase your capacity and stamina for more complex change. Small progress always leads to bigger progress. But in the beginning, forget about big steps, start small. Choose simple solutions to start with. Never be afraid to progress slowly in the beginning, only be afraid of stopping.
Do it right away, even if you only aim at the 50 % target.
Immediate implementation is the key to real Kaizen and becoming an ultra-successful person in life. When new ways of doing things come to your mind, you should immediately try them and measure the results. You should be like a kid or a crazy innovator who wants to try everything to see if it works. If it works you keep it, if doesn’t you pivot.
If you aim at a 50 % target and it works, you will get to the final 100 % in the next step. Minimum viable experience is more than enough for the first step. The important thing is that you take the first step. In addition to that, when you make the first step with the implementation, you start observing, learning and getting feedback from the environment. You gain the ability to adjust your strategy according to the forces in the environment. It’s more probable that you will get to 100 % if you first aim at 50 % and then adjust based on feedback, than if you aim at 100 % with brutal and complex solutions.
If you make a mistake, correct it right away.
When innovating and improving yourself, you constantly make mistakes. You constantly fail and discover options that don’t work. You probably know how many attempts were necessary before the light bulb was invented. When improving yourself, you will make mistakes. You will find ways that don’t work and you will find ways that are less efficient than your current ones. You will be frustrated and your willpower will be tested.
But don’t be afraid to make mistakes and don’t be afraid of failure. Failure is the integral part of every success. Nevertheless, there is one important rule when you fail and when you make mistakes. Correct your mistakes right away.
Don’t let them grow bigger and turn into something uncontrollable and unmanageable. Have the courage to admit you made a mistake and correct it immediately. Always do damage control.
The more you hesitate to admit your mistakes and correct them, the harder everything becomes. You burden yourself with anxiety that is completely redundant and unnecessary.
Aim for long-term sustainability of gains.
You probably know what a yo-yo effect after going on a diet is. You starve yourself for a few weeks and after you finish your diet, you eat like a king, gaining back all the weight, if not even more of it. When implementing any positive changes, you want to aim for long-term sustainability of gains. You must have a long-term view and be aware of the lengthy and demanding process that takes place before a change is permanently implemented.
As mentioned many times, implementing a change isn’t easy, no matter how small it is. For example, it took me more than a week of conscious effort to get used to unlocking my phone with a fingerprint instead of entering a PIN, when this functionality was developed. You always have a tendency to slip back into your previous behavioral patterns.
Therefore, you must have a long-term view in mind, you have to build strong foundations and push yourself through the process day by day until the change really becomes a new part of your personal culture or part of the culture in the environment you operate in. In other words, it’s about changing your lifestyle, not only about going on a diet.
Use fear as your compass.
If you don’t know where and how to start improving, I always suggest two things: (1) Start with your health – exercise and diet or (2) use fear as your compass. Okay, to be fair about the latter, fear can be a very useful thing and prevent you from doing something stupid. For example, fear usually successfully prevents you from putting your hand in the fire, starting to cuddle with a snake or a crocodile or whatever. So be afraid of the things you have to be afraid of. You don’t want to do anything stupid that would destroy your life.
Nevertheless, you’re definitely also afraid of things you shouldn’t be afraid of in life and you can use that fear as your compass for where to start improving. Think of the fears that aren’t rational. It’s a good place to start. You have to face those fears sooner or later.
Let’s look at a few examples of irrational fears. If you’re afraid of the things below, it’s a good way to start improving yourself:
- Public speaking
- Talking with superiors about new ideas
- Asking for a raise or a bonus if you deserve it
- Talking and flirting with the opposite sex
- Being independent from your parents
- Creating and contributing ideas
- Enjoying life
- Being alone
- Not having control
- The unknown
- Number 13
- Getting old
- Opinions of other people
Don’t let only fear be your compass. Use other negative emotions as well. Excessive guilt. Anxiety. Or any other emotion. Ask yourself why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling and start improving by changing your mindset and how you think.
It’s no different for organizations or companies. Management and company culture always have their fears as well. The things people are afraid to talk about, the forbidden challenges, the things left out of company strategy, and so on.
Kaizen is endless.
The best thing about everything is that Kaizen is endless. No matter how many changes you already implemented, big or small, there is always a way to do it better. There is always a way to improve something. There’s no such thing as practice, and there’s no such thing as being on the top. You should strive for nothing else but constant improvement all the way to your last breath.
Imagine how life will be in 50, 100 and 500 years. Full of evolution and revolutions.
There’s another important factor. Environment is constantly changing to the better. New technologies, new processes etc. If you stop improving, you start lagging behind. Your aim should be to improve faster than the environment is improving. Think what would happen if Apple stopped improving and stopped releasing new products, just because they’re the most valuable company on the planet and at the top. It’s obvious they would go out of business in a few years. So never stop improving.
Last but not least, you must have fun implementing positive change. It must become part of your character, of who you are (or part of the organizational culture). You have to stay lean, agile, adaptable and always look for improvements, while having fun. It’s how you experience life, it’s how you create and how you become the best version of yourself. Kaizen philosophy helps you really live life.
Unfortunately, hating change is in our DNA. For millions of years, clinging to security was the best way to not get eaten by a tiger. Survival was always nature’s primary objective. Not happiness, not creation, not mastery. Just survival. Guess what, you aren’t living in a jungle anymore. Thinking only about survival means that you’re nothing but a zombie. Therefore, see change as an opportunity, not as a threat. Strive for constant growth in your life and have fun doing it. And never forget: start by improving yourself and you will gain the power to change your environment or even the whole world.
And my favorite Kaizen rule, not even mentioned here. Read at least one hour per day.
The key takeaway
Implementing any kind of positive change starts with the right mindset. Your DNA, your environment with its own culture, the other people you have relationships with, everything will resist any kind of change even a positive one. That shouldn’t stop you from innovating and finding better ways to do things. You have to become the light of positive change. And if your mind get stuck, and it will, look at the Kaizen rules, un-stuck yourself and start innovating. No matter how hard the situation is, be Zenkai, MSc of Kaizen.