In a business sense, the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen is already a well-known term that embodies Japanese desire for excellence. Directly translated, this term means “improvement” (Kai means change, and zen means for the better).
But has it been understood properly in today’s business landscape?
The term has tended to be interpreted as a top-down, process optimisation approach, but this is not how it was originally intended. This fundamental misunderstanding means that business leaders are not fully benefiting from all that Kaizen has to offer.
So how can leaders across the world fully harness Kaizen?
Kaizen is not something that can be achieved in a workshop. One of its fundamental principles is creating a culture that encourages learning. This is all about embracing self-reflection, honesty and even vulnerability, essentially building an environment where everyone in the organisation accepts and learns from mistakes.
Organisations that embrace Kaizen will invite individuals to be so invested in the business that they want to mould and shape the way it works.
At the heart of embracing Kaizen is the understanding that great leaders put their people first. While big events can understandably shift the focus, the best leaders put in a continuous, conscious effort to motivate and nurture individuals.
Employees are more than just workers. Great leaders know this and maintain a holistic view of their continuous self-development. From work and business, to health and relationships, each of these aspects has an impact on the other.
When engaging with team members, none of these topics should be off the table.
The best leaders focus on employees’ needs, not just on what they need them to do. And when you put this level of effort into understanding the people who work for you, it will directly improve their work.
Being a good leader is also about giving people the freedom to contribute ideas that won’t be dismissed, and the confidence to fail without it being held against them.
During one of our forums, a chief executive referred to his “f*** it fund” – a budget that he writes off at the start of every financial year, giving people the opportunity to experiment without the pressure or fear of losing credibility that comes with making a mistake.
This sort of initiative may not be what people think about when they hear the term Kaizen, but this is exactly how companies can ingrain continuous improvement in their frameworks and structures, creating something that the entire team genuinely aspires to.
While it may not be called Kaizen, some organisations operate around similar principles: improvement that drives change that people believe in, where everyone is driven by a bigger goal. And it is by focusing on these more fundamental principles – rather than seeing Kaizen as an extension of “marginal gains” thinking – that this philosophy can be harnessed to the benefit of businesses.
For leaders, it’s important not to overcomplicate things. Simple does not necessarily constitute easy – and leadership and support is needed. But once you have these elements in place, the results follow naturally.