The Spirit of Kaizen

The word ‘Kaizen’ has been a screensaver on my pc (I’m a PC) for some time now. Meaning ‘continuous improvement’; it’s kinda a personal motto that I am trying to live by. I was really surprised by Robert Maurer’s The Spirit of Kaizen, first published in 2012.

I started reading it to gain more knowledge on how to improve operations at our company, thinking that it will be full of practical tips on how to increase efficiencies and push through change. After all, it made Toyota a global success.

Not only did it provide great practical advice, but it also went into the psychological side of what is required to continuously improve both a personal and professional level.

I enjoyed it so much that I bought a few copies and shared it with colleagues at work.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. Full contribution. One failure of employee engagement work is the attempt to get everyone on the same page. The problem stems from not giving employees the opportunity to write on that page. As opposed to handing down the page or program Kaizen invites every member of an organisation to contribute, and the employees like the idea of being part of the solution.

  2. Small steps to skip big fears. Our brains are wired to respond to change with fear and in the process deny us access to the mental resources we need to create change. Take three small steps to engagement and morale. Show appreciation, defuse difficult people and encourage employees to take small steps toward solving their problems. Maurer states that it is amazing how many big scale changes are accomplished by repeatedly performing a few simple behaviours.

  3. Begin with ‘small’ questions. Questions engage and small questions engage with less fear. Start your engagement by asking: What is the smallest way we could improve engagement at work. Ask, what can you do right now to increase employee engagement right now for either yourself or another employee of our organisation? Maurer holds a special regard for asking ourselves questions and not trying to answer them right away. Just keep asking and “let” the answer develop.

In Japanese “kaizen” means “good change.” Although the word is identified with the dominance of Japanese businesses in the second half of the twentieth century, it had its roots in U.S. government programs instituted during World War II known as Training Within Industry (TWI). TWI stressed that since there was no time for corporations to perform total makeovers to meet wartime needs, they should instead pursue continuous improvement using what they had.

As a strategy for change, kaizen asks for nothing other than small, doable steps toward improvement. By instinct most people resist change, says Maurer. He goes on to say, that we all smell danger whenever someone tries to change our routine—because routine makes us feel secure, good, and safe.

As a result, radical change rarely works. Rather than looking for the “one big thing” to solve a problem, people should take very small steps. In this way, they can change habits, even find inspiration, all with minimal stress.

In The Spirit of Kaizen; Maurer, a psychologist, explores the many ways in which Kaizen can help organisations make changes with minimal disruption and help people improve both their work and their personal lives.

Maurer demonstrates the value of kaizen in business. He gives an example of UPS, a company with a kaizenlike attention to detail. The company saved space at its dispatch centres by mandating that its brown vans park exactly five inches apart, with the rear view mirrors overlapping. Also using Kaizen thinking, the UPS engineers recognised that left-hand turns are costly to the company; trucks have to idle longer at intersections, consuming extra fuel and taking up precious time. The engineers edited their GPS software to reduce left-hand turns. UPS has estimated that in one year, this change saved 28.5 million miles off their usual routes and saved 12 million litres of fuel. And within five months of the change, carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by more than a thousand metric tonnes in New York City alone. A small change having a big impact.

Maurer explains that continuous improvement is built on the foundation of people courageously using their creativity. Kaizen is much more than a world-class management practice; it is a technique to remove fear from our minds, enabling us to take small steps to better things. The process of change starts with awareness and desire in our minds and then leads to action and change in the physical world.

Today’s businesses love the idea of being revolutionary, immediate change, says Maurer. But major “disruptive” efforts often fail because radical change sets off alarms in our brains and shuts down our power to think clearly and creatively. There is, however, a more effective path to change. Change that is lasting and powerful. Change that begins with one small step. It’s The Spirit of Kaizen―a proven system for implementing small, incremental steps that can have a big impact in reaching your goals. This step-by-step guides in the book shows you how to:

  • Raise quality―by reducing mistakes

  • Manage difficult people― one step at a time

  • Boost morale and productivity― in five minutes a day

  • Implement big ideas―through small but steady actions

  • Sell more―in less time

  • Lower costs―by offering little more frequent rewards

Maurer lists 10 commandments to follow in order to successfully push through change in your business or in your personal life. These are;

1. Abandon fixed ideas.

There is no way of changing things when fixed ideas are around. The objective is to reject the current status of the environment and start working on it with a free mind unpolluted of fixed ideas that remind us of how things “should be done”.

2. Think of ways to make it possible.

Instead of telling people what they shouldn’t do, it is better to think about how it could be done. It is a way of encouraging evolution through mind working and making ideas flow with easiness. Identify the problem and go for it.

3. Attack a process, not a person.

Many people think that workers are to blame for the bad function of machines, but instead, generally, the problem is a system problem that is not working correctly.

4. Go for the simple solution, not the perfect one.

It is not a matter of looking for perfection. Perfection is impossible. What the aim is, is to improve 60% of what we are.

5. Correct mistakes right away.

Don’t let the magic moment pass. You just found a solution to a problem, correct it straight away and don’t let it continue on making you lose precious time and money.

6. Use your wits, not your wallet.

Don’t waste your money on things that can be solved with thinking. Invest in people and their capacity for solving problems.

7. Problems are opportunities.

It is in those times when difficulties are happening where the opportunity to improve arises and must be recorded for future use.

8. Repeat “why?” five times.

It is necessary to find out the real reason for problems before trying to solve them in the wrong direction. For that to happen, it is good to respect the “5 Whys” and then try no find a solution.

9. Seek ideas from many people.

To consider the ideas of ten persons instead of waiting for the brilliant idea of one person will provide better results. Not only because it will encourage more ideas to appear, but because small ideas are generally cheaper and easily applicable.

10. There is no end to improvement.

This is the key to the method. It is not only useful in many industries and sectors, but it never stops improving itself what makes it a powerful method based on own experience.


What I took from it.

I found this book to be filled with practical tips and ready-to-use tools for managers, entrepreneurs and people in their personal lives. I discovered the “small step” secrets for dealing with all kinds of people, from tough bosses and energy-sapping workers to stubborn clients and win-lose mentality suppliers. No matter how big the obstacle or how big the dream, The Spirit of Kaizen has a small-step solution to help you succeed.

My Rating

I really enjoyed this book, its short but offers up some challenging thinking points. It's was not quite what I expected, and I was expecting a purely operational manual. Maurer's background as a clinical psychologist adds a new dimension in explaining WHY Kaizen might succeed in helping us to deal with resistance to change, and what we might do to overcome the obstacles. Many useful illustrations. I will definitely read this book a few times and already have bought a few copies to share with colleagues.