What CEOs can learn from “Kaizen”

Kaizen comes from the Japanese word for improvement and is the philosophy of gradual and continuous progress.

Harvard Business School defines it as “a set of activities directed at improving standardized work, equipment and procedures for carrying out daily production or other business operations.”

The goal of Kaizen is to implement incremental changes that lead to long-term improvements and the practice typically follows five basic tenets: teamwork; personal discipline; improved morale; quality; and suggestions for improvement.

This concept is often applied in the business world and has been employed by some of the most recognizable and successful global businesses, including Aston Martin, Toyota, Herman Miller, Lockheed Martin, Toyota and the Mayo Clinic.

Why it matters to CEOs today

2022 is going to be another challenging year as many business leaders find themselves at an inflection point. We’re still in the thick of the pandemic, but we can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. Recognizing that the end of a period of extreme upheaval is nearing its end can make CEOs want to rush through and get it all over with. But this attitude can cause serious (and avoidable) missteps.

Now is not the time to rush, but instead the time to be deliberate and strategic, taking things step-by-step while still being prepared to triage issues that pop up unexpectedly.

Adopting Kaizen can help CEOs harness their 2022 optimism, while also setting reasonable benchmarks and focusing on improving the areas that matter most in the immediate term.

Applying the five tenets of Kaizen

1. Teamwork

If ever there was a time to prioritize teamwork, that time is now. With nearly half of people still working from home, cultivating a sense of unity remains incredibly challenging. Research suggests that more than 70% of workers feel lonely on a monthly basis.

Whether it’s missing out on socializing in the office, staying at home more, quarantines or school disruptions, the pandemic has been an isolating experience for most people. In this kind of environment, CEOs need to remember to keep their teams’ spirits up and reinforce positive work culture.

In their upcoming book, Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams From Isolated to All In, authors Ryan Jenkins and Steve Van Cohen offer several tips for business leaders. They recommend several small changes, including opting for the occasional phone call instead of an email, welcoming interruptions, scheduling lunch with colleagues and arriving early to meetings so you can connect with others.

2. Personal discipline

Grandiose resolutions are almost always guaranteed to fail. Embrace the idea of continuous progress and aim for one small improvement by creating a new healthy habit. Maybe it’s five minutes of meditation before you start the day or a long walk every Tuesday during your lunch break. Whatever it is, make it a regular practice that you integrate into your schedule.

Even committing to and implementing one small habit can help CEOs become more disciplined and process-oriented at work. Exercising personal discipline also fosters greater accountability, which can have positive spillover effects across the organization.

3. Improved morale

Bring a little more life and levity to your organization this year. Celebrate the wins – even the little ones. You don’t always have to wait until the end of the project to congratulate your team. If someone has pushed through a difficult obstacle or reached an important milestone, share it with the company.

Be sure you’re championing every contributor. It’s not just the person who closed the biggest sales deal or spearheaded the launch of a new project. You should be celebrating the customer support agent who found a way to reduce ticket answering times or the operations team member who set up a new automated fulfillment process.

Congratulatory and celebratory gestures show that you value employees that demonstrate a desire to make continual improvements. If you’re looking to dive deeper into why and how to show your appreciation, check out Gary Chapman and Paul White’s The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.

4. Quality + 5. Suggestions for improvement

The final two tenets go hand-in-hand: Gathering employee input and suggestions to improve quality. Quality and efficiency are natural byproducts of continuous improvement in the workplace.

CEOs should engage employees in the process of implementing changes and improvements. Encourage everyone to share their experiences, insights and ideas when it comes to exploring ways to improve. This may mean you need to create opportunities for anonymous feedback.

Instead of dictating what should be done next, it’s more about asking questions. How can we do this faster? What would make our business better? How can we save time? Where can we save money? Have teams test out their ideas and iterate so that they feel more engaged in the process and invested in the outcome. 

Small steps lead to big changes

To borrow from the popular phrase “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” CEOs should approach this year with excitement and optimism that’s grounded in incremental and actionable steps. If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that we never know what’s coming next. Embracing Kaizen allows CEOs to still make progress, while also leaving room to pivot when necessary.