Apotheosis episode 32: Kaizen. Kai = Change. Zen = For the better.

Episode 32: Kaizen

Ryan D Thompson Growth, Leadership, Modern, Skills, Values

Key ideas

Change is coming for you. No matter how skilled you were in the past, what worked yesterday might be irrelevant tomorrow. We’ll never have everything figured out. The art of kaizen promotes continuous improvement, helping us rise to each moment.

  • Imagine the best 15th century army in the world squaring off against any modern army. There would be no contest. The strategy that dominated warfare for millennia – thousands of men lining up and charging – was rendered nearly useless.
  • Like military strategy, our own strategies and approaches will one day fail. Skills that served us well in the past can become outdated as new challenges and threats arise. We all benefit from seeking to constantly improve and adapt to the needs of the present.
  • The business practice of kaizen, popularized in Japan, offers a systematic way to identify problems, design and test solutions, and make continuous improvements. Delving into root causes of problems can help uncover solutions.
  • To adopt kaizen, favor gradual changes over time. Minor tweaks over time can lead to sustainable change and positive impact.


Two armies square off on the battlefield as the sun breaks the horizon. Steam rises from wet grass and the hot breath of soldiers. Silence blankets the field, broken by intermittent sounds: the neighing of a horse. Clenching of leather sword handles and scraping of armor. The air holds tension like a rope stretched to its breaking point.

And then… raaaaaaa!!! The armies charge in unison, several thousand men brandishing meter-long razor blades and drunk on battle rage. They smash into each other like two hammers, both seeking a nail. The carnage was intense.

This style of warfare persisted for millennia. While there were many distinct tactics, approaches, and methods of subterfuge to gain an advantage, the general strategy remained the same: bring as many men as possible and wipe out as many of the opposing army as possible. No modern army would ever consider squaring off in this way today. The idea is almost laughable. Changes in technology gave rise to a dramatic evolution of military strategy. The sword gave way to the gun, the catapult to the guided missile. Several thousand men standing together in a field would be decimated in minutes by tanks or aircraft.

Strategies that served well for thousands of years suddenly became obsolete in a matter of decades.

This example points to a universal truth: change is coming for you. Military strategists have sought ways to consistently improve their strategies in the face of new challenges and thus increase their odds of achieving victory on the battlefield. Likewise, we all would benefit from seeking to constantly adapt and improve. Strategies that have worked in the past might be useless tomorrow. Skills that served us well before can become outdated as new challenges and threats arise. Approaching leadership with humility, accepting that we might not have all the answers, helps us adapt and respond to the challenges of the day rather than the challenges of the past.

This episode will focus on the concept of kaizen, often translated from Japanese as continuous improvement. This is the first episode in a series looking at the values that have deeply informed the Apotheosis podcast. I think the values I’ll cover in this series can also serve other leaders, organizations, and our society more broadly. Changes in technology, culture, and other conditions will constantly disrupt our strategies and systems. Old ways won’t always be up to new challenges. Dedication to kaizen helps us continuously hone our skills and improves our odds of success.

What is Kaizen? The idea of kaizen emerged through a collaboration between the United States and Japan after WW2. It was ultimately refined and popularized by Toyota. Through continuous improvement, companies like Toyota reduce waste, increase efficiency, and increase value to the company and its customers. Kaizen helps businesses create better products and maximize profit.

Masaaki Imai, a Japanese organizational consultant who helped to introduce kaizen to western businesses, describes kaizen as not just continuous improvement. He calls it every day, everybody, everywhere improvement. Companies apply kaizen to identify problems in the manufacturing process or the end product. For example, many defects might originate on the assembly line, so the people working on the line have an opportunity to spot those problems and possibly even design solutions. 

But as Imai describes, it’s not enough for just the workers on the assembly line to look for issues. Kaizen has to be infused throughout the company, from the top through the middle down to the bottom. It has to occur daily and in each of the company’s systems and processes. The organization’s leaders are responsible for creating the space for employees to improve systems. Leaders must be open to feedback and constructive criticism, even from employees lower in the hierarchy. Psychological safety is crucial. Members of the organization need to feel they have permission to point out issues and suggest solutions – without fear of getting fired or being subjected to retaliation. A culture of fear driven by authoritarian leaders will stifle kaizen. In contrast, kaizen thrives in an environment where confident leaders trust their staff and empower them to improve.

Now, most examples of kaizen arise from the business world. But it has been applied in many other contexts, from healthcare to politics to education. Kaizen could likewise make an impact in sustainable development or other purpose-driven work. Issues like racial justice, climate change, poverty, and child hunger resist easy solutions. The conditions are constantly changing, and new barriers constantly arise. Therefore, solutions that might have worked before will probably fall short in the future. Adopting the mindset and practices of kaizen offers a promising way for organizations to adapt and find relevant solutions.

How to get started? A general idea behind kaizen is that if you see a problem, flag it. Then, brainstorm with your team to eliminate or reduce that problem. The business world has developed a range of practices for implementing kaizen. One common approach is the PDCA Cycle: Plan, Do, Check, Act. This approach involves proposing a particular change, implementing that change, measuring the results, and then taking action, such as making corrections as needed.

Another common method is called the Five Whys, which aims to find the root causes of problems. It’s as straightforward as the name: ask, “why is this problem occurring?” five times, progressively digging deeper toward the real solution. The idea is to discourage shallow, knee-jerk explanations and encourage critical thinking about what is driving the issue.

Even if we don’t follow a formal methodology, we can incorporate the spirit of kaizen into our work and daily life. A fundamental principle for kaizen is to favor small and gradual changes. A helpful analogy is sailing a boat. You typically don’t want to make huge turns on the wheel. Turning too far too fast can take the boat way off course. Likewise, with kaizen, minor tweaks over time can lead to sustainable change and positive impact. On the other hand, large changes can be hard to maintain or might lead to unexpected consequences.

And at its heart, kaizen involves simply accepting our imperfections and committing to being open to change. Being open to feedback and constructive criticism.

No one would claim that kaizen is easy. Growth, by its nature, involves discomfort. We must be willing to do the work, face our flaws, and find ways to improve. But it’s worth the work. What else should we do with this life, if not get better and better every day, every year, every decade?

That’s all for now. I hope these thoughts on kaizen help you on your path to constant and continuous improvement in life and work. We need our best to tackle the challenges in front of us. Kaizen can help us reach our peak – and keep climbing to the next peak.

Join me again next week as I continue this series on values. I’ll look at focusing on the essential, whether you call this essentialism or perhaps even minimalism. In the meantime, I have a favor to ask. If you can leave a review or a rating for this podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, that would really help me reach more people with these ideas. Connect with me on LinkedIn or check the Project Indra website for more info. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License