Kaizen: Incremental Improvements in Your Business and Personal Life

Jul 12, 2013

I recently received a comment from a sign maker, who lamented that she had to continually change her behavior in order to accomplish her goals. Aren’t we all in the same situation? To reach our destinations we all have to make continual changes in our businesses and our lives.

Continually adjusting your plans can be compared to flying an airliner.  The pilot’s destination never changes, but during the flight he or she continually makes course corrections to stay on target.

Making regular adjustments to the way we do things in business or in our personal lives is an absolute necessity for most of us. Failure to change can be fatal to your business or personal life. The extinction of the dinosaurs is the quintessential allegory used to illustrate this point. They towered about all the other creatures as dominating the land.  Their failure to adapt to a changing environment sealed their fate. Instead, the lowly rodents and the cockroaches survived. I guess the meek really do inherit the earth.

Now more than ever, continual change is the order of the day. Gone are the days when we could master a trade, and practice our craft until the day we collected our pension. The rapidly changing technologies in all fields require learning new skills.

The philosophy of if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, is a recipe for disaster. If you fail to make improvements, don’t be surprised when a competitor is breaking down the gates of your castle. In all likelihood the competitor didn’t make an overnight quantum leap in technology. As they were climbing incrementally, you were sliding in your complacency.

What is “kaizen”? Usually achieving personal goals or attaining dominance in business is a gradual evolutionary process, not a singular revolutionary, cataclysmic event.

The Japanese have assimilated the practice of gradual change into the operation of their businesses. They call this “kaizen”, which literally means “good change”. Many have also incorporated kaizen in their personal lives.

By making small changes in their everyday lives, they gradually take these small steps toward reaching their ultimate goals. Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, noted that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Step by step, by making small improvements in our behavior we slowly inch toward our destination.

So how do you incorporate the philosophy of kaizen in your life? Here are a few ideas for making continuous improvements.

Set goals. You can’t get to where you are going if you don’t have a destination. In reality, that’s the way many people go through life. They just go with the flow. That’s great if all of the other lemmings that you are following find their way to green pastures. Unfortunately, we all know about lemmings and cliffs.

For me, goal setting takes introspection. What is it that you really want to achieve in your life? Your goals may focus around financial security, professional achievement, harmony in your personal relationships or health and wellness targets.

Break big goals into bite-size pieces. We all know how the ant ate the elephant: one bite at a time. The Neuro-Linguistic Programming people, such as self-help guru Tony Robbins, call the process of taking a big task and breaking it down to much smaller tasks: “chucking down”. This is a great way to tackle any major goals, whose magnitude can easily overwhelm us.

Planning. Once you know your destination, get out your map and start planning your route. Planning is not a one-time event. It should be a on-going practice. Here’s why. As the great 19th century German Field Marshall, Helmuth von Moltke noted: “no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” He learned Napoleon’s dictum that once an engagement begins, you must maneuver according to the changing circumstances on the ground.

As life throws you an occasional curve ball, you must change how you maneuver. Your destination may always remain the same, though you will undoubtedly need to make a few pit stops and detours along the way.

Keep a daily journal. I am sure that you have heard the old saying: “It’s hard to know where you are going, if you don’t know where you have been.” One way to track where you have been is by keeping a journal. The advantage of recording of your progress on a daily basis is it helps you maintain focus. Writing also helps clearly identify what works so you can make those processes part of your routine.  If some of your initiates don’t bear fruit, a journal is a good reminder, which can help prevent making the same mistake twice.

Teamwork. As Americans, many of us pride ourselves on our “self-reliance”. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that man is his own star and had everything that he needed within himself to succeed. As admirable a notion as this may be, we can make much faster progress working with others toward our goals.  To that end, Harvey Mckay, author of Swim with the Sharks, recommends developing relationships with experienced professionals, willing to give you advice and guidance. Modeling your behavior after those who have been successful in your field is another proven practice. Finally, developing strategic alliances with others can help you gain the knowledge and skills, which will allow you to grow as you pursue your professional and financial goals.