Kaizen, the philosophy of continuous improvement through small but constant efforts, has been the cornerstone of best practices in Japanese manufacturing since the 1950s.
Though well-established within business and management circles, the past decade has seen a remarkable surge of interest in Kaizen from the unlikeliest of sources: psychologists and life coaches.
These psychologists and coaches claim the philosophy applies to all areas of life, not just business, and that it offers a gentler and more sustainable alternative to the ‘go big or go home’ approach so many people adopt when seeking self-improvement.
Although an intriguing argument, the claims made by Kaizen’s advocates and practitioners call for closer inspection. Can we really apply a philosophy like Kaizen to our personal lives?
Can its emphasis on small, incremental changes lead to significant self-improvement over time?
In order to answer these questions, the following sections present a brief introduction to the Kaizen philosophy, examining its origins, potential applications, and research on its benefits to find out whether small and steady steps can pave the way to big lifestyle changes.
What exactly is Kaizen?
‘Kaizen’ is the Japanese word for ‘improvement’ (kai = change, zen = good). It is more than just a word, however, as Kaizen is also the name given to the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement through small but constant efforts.
In businesses such as Toyota, for example, Kaizen is used to create a company culture where all employees take small, steady steps to reduce waste and inefficiency (Kato & Smalley, 2010).
Is Kaizen just a business philosophy?
Although Kaizen was first adopted by Japanese manufacturers to revitalize productivity in the aftermath of the Second World War (Nanda & Robinson, 2011), organizational theorists have recognized its potential application to all areas of life since at least the 1980s (Imai, 1986).
Indeed, according to Masaaki Imai, the philosophy can be defined as the assumption that “our way of life — be it our working life, our social life, or our home life — should focus on constant improvement efforts” (Imai, 2012, pp. 1–2). Kaizen is not, therefore, just a business philosophy.
Does the Kaizen philosophy apply to self-improvement?
As Imai’s definition shows, Kaizen can be used to improve all aspects of life, not just the workplace.
However, it is Dr. Robert Maurer, a clinical psychologist at Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center, who propelled Kaizen into the mainstream of popular psychology with the publication of his first book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life (Maurer, 2004).
In his book, Maurer argues that Kaizen’s industrial origins are no barrier to its use at the individual level, as the philosophy applies to almost any personal problem or goal, be it losing weight, improving relationships, or making a career change.
Since Maurer’s book came out in 2004, other practitioners and coaches have embraced Kaizen and published their own books on using it to achieve personal success and lifestyle change (e.g. Harvey, 2019; Krech, 2014).
How can I use Kaizen for self-improvement?
Kaizen’s emphasis on small, continuous improvements could make it a simple and sustainable approach for achieving your personal goals.
Take, for example, the goal of losing weight; rather than going on an unsustainable crash diet or engaging in a grueling exercise regimen, the Kaizen principle actually advocates the opposite: small, incremental improvements in diet and exercise every single day.
These changes could be as small as taking one bite less of a cookie or adding an extra minute or two to a daily walk, but — and here is the clincher — constantly taking such tiny steps could add up to big results over time.
Does Kaizen really work?
Academic research on Kaizen’s effectiveness for self-improvement is very limited, although it has shown promising results in the small number of studies that have examined it as a framework for a lifestyle change.
According to a study by Suárez-Barraza et al. (2013), for example, following a Kaizen approach enabled all the participants to make significant and long-lasting improvements to their quality of life, from losing weight and improving fitness all the way through to quitting smoking and increasing job satisfaction.
Indeed, one participant, a 38-year-old woman who had struggled with obesity and physical inactivity for many years, achieved remarkable changes, according to the authors (Suárez-Barraza et al., 2013, p. 200):
CASE 1, in keeping with Kaizen philosophy, converted the nutritionist’s recommendations into small daily exercise goals. For example, the first day she went to the park “to run,” she got out of her car, took 52 steps, and got back into her car. The next day, she increased the number of steps to 60.
After two weeks, she walked a whole kilometer (0.62 miles); she continued this practice for a year. When CASE 1 was interviewed in 2001, she could run approximately 7 kilometers at a light pace. One year earlier, she had only been able to take 52 steps.
Although studies on Kaizen’s effectiveness for improving quality of life are limited, these results suggest it has significant potential as a system for self-improvement. However, research in other domains also lends credence to the philosophy, as a small-step approach, in general, has been recognized as a promising model for a sustainable lifestyle change (Hill, 2009).
In fact, because of such research, many government-backed initiatives have been developed to encourage people to take small steps toward improving diet and increasing exercise (Hills et al., 2013). Kaizen could, therefore, offer an easy and sustainable means for improving quality of life, although much additional research will be required before firm conclusions can be drawn about its potential for self-improvement.
The bottom line…
Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement through small but constant efforts, is attracting attention from psychologists and life coaches as a practical and easy-to-follow approach for sustainable self-development.
Although relatively few studies have examined its effectiveness for improving quality of life, the available research suggests that Kaizen offers a promising framework for making significant and sustainable lifestyle changes.
Hopefully, additional research will offer further evidence to support Kaizen’s one-step-at-a-time approach to self-improvement.
Harvey, S. (2019). Kaizen: The Japanese Method for Transforming Habits, One Small Step at a Time. London: Bluebird.
Hill, J.O. (2009). Can a small-changes approach help address the obesity epidemic? A report of the Joint Task Force of the American Society for Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists, and International Food Information Council. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(2), pp.477–484.
Hills, A.P., Byrne, N.M., Lindstrom, R. and Hill, J.O. (2013). Small changes to diet and physical activity behaviors for weight management. Obesity Facts, 6(3), pp.228–238.
Imai, M. (1986). The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. New York: Random House.
Imai, M. (2012). Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense Approach to a Continuous Improvement Strategy, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kato, I. and Smalley, A. (2010). Toyota Kaizen Methods: Six Steps to Improvement. New York: CRC Press.
Krech, G. (2014). The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology. Monkton: ToDo Institute.
Maurer, R. (2004). One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. New York: Workman.
Nanda, V. and Robinson, J. (2011). Six Sigma Software Quality Improvement: Success Stories from Leaders in the High Tech Industry. New York: McGraw Hill Professional.
Suárez‐Barraza, M.F., Ramis‐Pujol, J. and Dahlgaard‐Park, S.M. (2013). Changing quality of life through the Personal Kaizen approach: a qualitative study. International Journal of Quality and Service Sciences, 5(2), pp.191–207.