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The Japanese Method for Transforming Habits, One Small Step at a Time

By Sarah Harvey
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Kaizen by Sarah Harvey

Kaizen (2019) is a guide to the improvement philosophy known as kaizen, which encourages taking small steps to complete ambitious goals. Already well established in the world of business and sports, this method can also be applied to personal development. Using practical examples, this guide explains how to take a kaizen approach to setting goals that’ll improve health, relationships, money, and work.

Key idea 1 of 7

Kaizen values incremental growth.

Let’s say you want to beat your sugar addiction. So you sign up with a hypnotherapist who promises to make your sweet cravings vanish in five sessions. It may be an expensive solution, but you feel like you’ve tried everything else.

After the last hypnotherapy session, you walk out feeling empowered. In fact, you manage to go the entire following week without any sugar cravings. But fast-forward to a bad morning the week after that and you find yourself at a vending machine, begrudgingly pressing for a candy bar. As you toss the cold coins in the slot, you regret the money spent on the hypnotist.

The key message here is: Kaizen values incremental growth.

We live in a culture that expects instant results, so it’s no surprise that many health and self-help trends promise overnight success. But a much more effective way to transform habits is to take one small action at a time, repeating it until you get results. This underpins the Japanese philosophy of kaizen.

While kaizen is a Japanese word for change, the kaizen method originated as a business theory, created by the US government to help Japan reboot its economy after World War II. Kaizen is credited as influencing the ensuing success of many Japanese companies, most notably Toyota. Labeled “the Toyota Way” by the company, kaizen has been used as a strategy to enhance product lines, by incrementally reducing production waste while improving quality.

Ironically, by the 1980s, Japanese companies were doing so well that it gave American businesses reason to fret. So kaizen returned to the US, as an organizational theory, in a book titled Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success by Masaaki Imai.

In his book, Imai encourages managers to set short-, medium-, and long-term goals around four criteria: business growth, product quality, customer service, and staff motivation. Additionally, every employee – from the receptionist to the CEO – is invited to contribute suggestions for ways to improve. The emphasis is always on long-term goals and continuous improvement through small changes.

As Imai acknowledges, kaizen has wider applications far beyond the business world. Whether you want to adopt a healthier lifestyle, get better at saving money, or rethink your career, kaizen can set you on the path to success. But first, you have to know where you stand.

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