Kaizen – the journey that never ends

The scene: a martial arts class twenty five years ago.
A few moments into our first exercise period, the visiting Japanese instructor sits us down and gently informs us that we are getting it all wrong. Peering past the pumping arms and into our minds, he recognises that we are looking at the exercise as something distinct from the martial art. We are doing, but not thinking. This, he tells us, is hindering our progress. We were going through the motions of the exercise physically but with the brain sitting idle, we learned nothing from them.
We had failed to realize that the rational of the martial art was to improve ourselves rather than simply to learn tricks and techniques in isolation.
The lesson stuck.
That was my first encounter with what I came to know as Kaizen. Sometimes credited as the reason behind the success of Japanese industry, Kaizen in business terms has been with us since the aftermath of the Second World War. Arguably a form of Kaizen existed as part of Japanese warrior culture for millennia before that.
Nowadays, the sole survivor of the Nineties obsession with the phrase “business is war” has to be Kaizen.
The base idea is that every day you try and better what you did yesterday.
The challenge is how you actually do that. You can’t spend life approaching each day in a different fashion at random in the vain hope that you chance upon a better way of achieving something.
Even if you did hit on a better way of doing something how would you know, and how would you avoid backsliding the next day?

The answer is threefold:

Learn ; Practice ; Evaluate

  • Learning: These days this part of Kaizen is easier than ever as business skills can be efficiently taught by elearning, enabling you to train at your own pace and facilitate regular, frequent learning as opposed to force-feeding your mind with daylong sessions.
  • Practice: Seeking out opportunities to practise is key to the concept of Kaizen. It isn’t something that is “done to you”, it is something that is “done by you”. The effort of identifying opportunities to practise the techniques you have picked up is a vital part of valuing and owning that information and turning it into a skill.
  • Evaluation: You can only go so far by your own evaluation – to really improve this means getting feedback and support from others. Gathering and recording evidence of your learning and the improvements it has achieved are vital. Ensuring that your organisation has a system to record and evaluate your performance in an objective, evidence based way is fundamental to improving your prospects.

With the launch of our talent management system, my journey became a whole lot easier. The paper file I have kept for two decades still exists – but only as a backup to the electronic version holding my training, my objectives and my evidence. The fact that the organisation benefits from a constantly improving employee – well that’s a plus too! “The only person you truly ever change is yourself”

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