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Debunked: "kaizen = Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement"

Kaizen

One of the most beloved Japanology memes overseas involves the word kaizen (or Kaizen to some). Here's the definition from the New Oxford American Dictionary:

kaizen |ˈkaɪzən|
noun: a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc.

That sometimes gets further embellished by eager writers who extend kaizen to carry continuous improvement out of the business realm, and "throughout all aspects of life", per one definition I've seen. Whatever the specifics, what you'll find in common across all definitions is that kaizen is a Japanese word for "a Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement".

Unfortunately, that's wrong.

What's it really mean?

Jump down to "The wrap" at the end of this article if you want the quick low-down. Otherwise, here's the full story, starting with the real meaning of the Japanese word kaizen from the Shogakukan Dictionary:

かい‐ぜん【改善】〘名〙悪いところを改めてよくすること。

Direct translation:

kaizen (改善) noun: The act of making bad points better.

My literal translation is a wee clumsy; warui tokoro ("bad points/areas") could be more neatly translated as "defects" or "flaws". In any case, dictionaries from Sanseido and Oubunsha, as well as the massive and authoritative Koujien, give an identical definition, which points to a one-word, spot-on English translation: "improvement". Indeed, Japanese-English dictionaries, such as the Progressive or Sanseido dictionaries, translate kaizen into English using the single word "improvement". Period. 

Not continuous

Note what's missing in the Japanese definition: both the qualifier "continuous" and anything to do with "Japanese philosophy". Kaizen is derived from Chinese, and its characters appear without change in Chinese (gǎi shàn), Korean (ge sun) and Japanese (kaizen). The word has the same mundane meaning of "improvement" in all of these languages. This kaizen is improvement one time or a million times, momentarily or continuously; it doesn't matter. Contrary to modern mythology, there is no meaning of "continuous" built into kaizen.

That said, one certainly can perform kaizen on a continuous basis, and that's what happened in Japan, right? Well, sure, some firms and sectors of industry in Japan have made an excellent practice of continuous improvement, creating effective management systems to generate, capture, and review improvements in never-ending cycles. Toyota is the best-known example. After all, isn't "kaizen" the very name of that company's game-changing management methods?

Not quite. Toyota's overall system of techniques for production management goes by the prosaic name Toyota Production System (Toyota seisan houshiki). The system rests upon a number of core principles, one of which is indeed labeled kaizen - which for purposes of Toyota's usage (or generally, any manufacturing usage) certainly does mean continuous improvement. My point is this: "Continuous" here is a logical extension of the word's use in manufacturing, not a part of the word's core definition itself. In the same way, another principle of the Toyota Production System, jidouka (automation), logically implies continuous automation. Likewise, your resolution to get more exercise logically implies continuous efforts to do so, not a single set of push-ups. Yet those logical implications don't make "continuous" an integral part of the definitions of "automation" or "exercise".

So if "continuous" isn't part of the definition of kaizen, why would Toyota choose the word to wrap up its goals and processes aimed at continuous improvement? Because for a short single-word name, kaizen is the only real choice - as there is no magical Japanese word for "continuous improvement".

Not Japanese

Moving along: Whether continuous or not, what's Japanese about "improvement"? Nothing. It feels silly to have to point this out, but companies, organizations, and people everywhere engage in improvement, in all areas of human endeavor. From the wheel to the jumbo jet, from superstition to science, from warring tribes to democracies, it's all improvement, little by little, never ending. Continuous improvement is integral to all of human history, past and future.

Japan included, of course. Some of its industrial kaizen has been really spectacular, such as the improvements Japanese automakers effected in their products. Endeavors in other sectors in Japan, such as hospital practices and efficiency in the construction and certain retail sectors (to toss out a couple of examples), haven't been so swift with the kaizen and are the envy of no one. The point is that there is not, and cannot be, anything "Japanese" about concepts as universally human as "improvement" or "continuous improvement".

The closest you could get with a Japan-centric tack is specifying kaizen in the context of specific industrial management techniques advanced in Japan and labeled with the word. Yet even there the national designation gets fishy. Any authority on the topic, inside Japan or outside, will cheerfully acknowledge that the whole "industrial kaizen" ball got rolling in Japan with management and quality control techniques developed and taught by outsiders like W. E. Deming and J. M. Juran.

A new definition: kaizen vs Kaizen

So we've got the definition of kaizen all wrong, and we should stop using the word, right? No! This is an important point: If folks have coined a new English word meaning "continuous improvement", then so be it! This word Kaizen (I'll capitalize it to distinguish it from kaizen) may differ from its Japanese ancestor, but that's how language rolls. Long live Kaizen!

All right, then, this new English word covers the concept of "continuous improvement"; what else is in its definition? Is Kaizen a management term referring to specific bottom-up processes for ongoing, cyclical, and qualitative identification, implementation, and review of improvements in an industrial setting? Or can it be applied more broadly to any business setting? Or does Kaizen expand beyond the workplace to improvements all throughout life?

I'll leave that to those who make use of (and continuously improve?) the word. But one plea, dear reader: Even with flexible modern English definitions of Kaizen, please don't include - or allow others to include! - the silly bit about "a Japanese philosophy". Whether your Kaizen refers to "continuous improvement" in all areas of human endeavor, or only to improvement in all areas of business endeavors, or even narrowly to very specific management practices exemplified by systems within Toyota which are based upon the teachings of American experts and tagged with a mundane Chinese-derived word, it should be clear that labeling the concept as "a Japanese philosophy" is just goofy.

(Incidentally, I wonder how the word kaizen/Kaizen first came to English. Maybe in the same apocryphal way as "kangaroo". Like this:

American management guru: "Wow, the work you've done in this auto plant is amazing. Please, you must tell me, what is the Ancient Oriental Secret behind it all?"

Japanese factory guys: "Hmm? Nothing, really... just 'kaizen' – that is, we just make improvements when we see someth..."

Guru: "Astounding! I must tell the world of this mystical Asian 'Ky-Zen' philosophy! If only the Western world is ready for it! My book will prepare them - coming soon, just $29.99!"

Factory guys: <look at each other, scratch heads>  )

Semi-joking tangents aside, what's really interesting is this: Modern Japanese itself has a new word kaizen - written with katakana (カイゼン) to distinguish it from the mundane kaizen (改善) - to cover this newfangled concept of "philosophy of continuous improvement". In Japan as everywhere, people gotta keep up with the latest in global trendy management terms!

The wrap

A summary:

You might use the Japanese word kaizen as Toyota does, as the name for a Toyota management principle covering a number of techniques aimed at continuous fostering of improvements in products and processes. Or you may use Kaizen (my recommended capitalization) as a new English word with a similar definition, or perhaps with the simpler definition of "continuous improvement", which you might further constrain to usage in business or industrial settings.

There's no problem with those usages. Just for the record, though, there is no Japanese word with the inherent meaning of "continuous improvement"; contrary to myth, the everyday Japanese word kaizen means only "improvement" in the same generic and mundane sense as that English word.

Similarly, while we can point out specific improvement-related techniques that were developed in Toyota or other workplaces in Japan, there is no basis to claim existence of a unique "Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement", under any name. That's pure modern mythology.

That about covers it. For the moment, in any case; kaizen has proved to be a somewhat tricky and slippery word to dissect. I'll happily take corrections where warranted, and engage in continuous improvement of my own. If there's a defect in my output above, jump to the comments and halt my assembly line. I'll procure some fixes, Just In Time!

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Comments

Re: Debunked: "kaizen = Japanese philosophy of continuous ...

With all due respect, I have enjoyed your dissection of Kaizen.  It is very entertaining and clearly sheds light on mythmaking.
My experience of living in Japan is that there is such an enormous population living in such a small space, that culturally it is like a human beehive - so highly refined in every aspect of existence. Refinement is its' wellspring of exceptional, exquisite brilliance.
Kaizen  refinement
 

Re: Debunked: "kaizen = Japanese philosophy of continuous ...

..I am out and out begginer in all this - but while starting learning this, one idea arised in my mind - that the reason of huge success in Japan or any other Eastern countries etc. of this quality man. system (besides necessity) can be mainly DISCIPLINE of the nation (region).
I am from Central Europe - not really used to it here.. 
PS: thanks for the detailed explanation - very clear and simple. 
 

kaizen

Hi Great explanation.  Unfortunately I can not remember where I heard it but as some stage I was told that kaizen meant "never perfect" rather than "improvement".  The difference is subtle but substantial in terms of attitude.  Is the translation from Japanese absolute or could "never perfect" be a valid translation? 

kaizen

If I may, kaizen is made up of two parts.One is kai which has several meanings - "effect or worth" - "cut, trim or prune" - although I dislike using the terms positive and negative the root word contains instead what we might call a balanced meaning - what is the effect or worth of trimming or cutting or pruning. The other is zen which has the meanings of contemplation and contemplation practice. We might see here then the ideas of contemplating the worth or effect of trimming, cutting or pruning and then the practice which does seem to give the thought of continuously contemplating the worth of trimming, cutting or pruning. Chazen ichimi,Steve  

repentance

Hello!  I loved reading your explanation.  I have been fixated on this word for sometime after my friend sent me a poster with Kaizen on it.  It was mundane in its translation, improvement, but I still loved it and thought it was applicable to my life and personal philosophy.  Live each day stepping forward and striving to be better everyday.  One day when I was living in SF I went to a favorite donut shop and the owner was a Japanese lady.  I asked her what the Kanji said and she said, "repent!"  Knowing that I was in seminary I assume she was led to that translation.  I asked my friend who is in Japan and married to a Nihonjin and he researched and said there is no actual word for repent but the word they use for repent but it simply means ask forgiveness.  He said that she probably was more spot on with Kaizen as a translation for repentance.   Would you agree? 

改善

It's origin was yes, Chinese ... what is really a 'center' of Asian thought when it comes to living.With respect, but I believe it is a GROSS exaggeration and simplification to say:  "All corporations practice 改善, it just means static improvement".  Since it becomes a 'standard of practice' to apply to problems the continous nature of the word may not be encapsulated within it's linguistic structure ... it has no 'imperfective continual structure' so to speak, but being a standard of practice in real world practice, the continual nature becomes assumed.The Japanese people have taken (as they often have, and to great effect) 改善 and risen to an art in and of itself, and to the point that it takes on a life of it's own, and truly becomes 日本語 in and of itself.  The Japanese concept of 改善 and the American concept of continuing to improve, are light-years apart in terms of approach.  It's not a 'myth' because of the Japanese approach "improvement"The strength of Americans to this concept ... is that they combine their contact with the Japanese with their own natural drive for innovation and originiality, and Americans have adapted this to be a standard of corporate practice. 

Pretty Accurate

The only contention I would take up with this article is the comment that kaizen has nothing to do with Japanese. Not entirely true. it is true that there is no Japanese philosophy called Kaizen, but the word kaizen is a Japanese word borrowed from Chinese roots words much like languages sometimes borrow from other languages

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