How Kaizen (改善) Will Make You Better At Everything

Is there a single philosophy you can use to improve your health, your finances, your relationships, your profitability and even your happiness? Can one simple concept help you get better at absolutely everything in your life? Is there really a magic bullet that will help solve all your problems?

In a word? Yes.

Actually it’s two words. Kai (改) meaning “change” and Zen (善) meaning “good.” Or, in the original Japanese, “improvement.”

Kaizen. Improvement.

But Kaizen is much more than just improvement. It’s actually a tremendously powerful philosophy that has helped transform Japan, revitalize industry in the United States and has ultimately shaped the way modern business is conducted. Kaizen can help transform your life too and enable you to accomplish tasks that were previously impossible.

Where does Kaizen come from? How does it work? And how can you harness it to make your life a lot better? To answer these questions we first need to head back in time to World War II.

From Chaos to Kaizen

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Emperor Hirohito signed the surrender that gave up control of the country. From 1945 until the mid 1950s, Allied forces moved into Japan, held strategic locations and systematically disassembled any factories that had supported the Imperial military.

But honestly there wasn’t much left. After years of brutal warfare the country was in ruins. It soon became clear that if Japan was ever going to become self-sufficient again it would need outside help.

Financially unable to support their various occupied countries around the world, the US instituted the Marshall Plan in 1948. The program allocated grants and credits worth almost $20 billion to help rebuild the capacity of world industry. Japan’s slice of the pie was $2.44 billion over the next five years. Along with those funds and some raw materials, the United States also sent W. Edwards Deming, a statistics professor from New York University. Deming was assigned to work with the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) and hopefully teach them how to make Japanese factories and businesses across the war-torn country profitable again.

The sharp young professor immediately realized that two and a half billion dollars was a drop in a leaky bucket. Japan’s industrial infrastructure would require many times that amount in order for it to function correctly – money that would never come from Allied forces. Instead Japan needed a production philosophy that could be used for any company in the country, regardless of how scarce their resources were.

After studying everything on productivity he could find, Deming decided the best program in the world to improve quality and efficiency was the “Shewhart Cycle.” Based on the ideas of Walter Shewhart, the American workflow genius who revolutionized the Bell Telephone Company, the Shewhart Cycle followed four basic rules of small but steady growth…

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Plan, Do, Check and Adapt.

The PDCA Cycle was simple: Make a Plan, Do your plan, Check and revise your plan, and then Adapt your plan into a new and better Plan, starting again each time with slightly improved cycle.

A Car Company and Kaizen

This PDCA Cycle of “improvement” (aka Kaizen) was quickly adopted by businesses throughout Japan. A small car manufacturing company named Toyota recognized the value of the new philosophy and publicly chose to make Kaizen one of the core business practices of The Toyota Way. As Toyota expanded their profitability and influence, more and more Japanese industry began to incorporate this powerful new way of thinking.

As Toyota grew, their philosophy of Kaizen began to grow as well. Instead of simply meaning “improvement” – as in the original definition – Toyota’s version of Kaizen now incorporated Shewhart’s Cycle of continuous incremental growth. The new definition of Kaizen became “to make small, ongoing improvements.” Soon Toyota’s evolved philosophy would fuel the rebirth of a new technology-based Japanese industry and help restore their country’s financial independence.

The Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) were thrilled with the success of Deming’s system. In 1960 the Emperor of Japan presented him with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, one of the country’s highest honors. To this day an annual Deming Prize is awarded by the JUSE to products around the world with the highest quality and dependability.

By the 1980s Toyota had grown into one of the most profitable car manufacturers in the world. It was at this point industry leaders – including many failing manufacturers from across the United States – flocked to Toyota to learn the secrets of their success. In a fascinating and ironic twist, the Japanese company proceeded to teach the PDCA Cycle and Kaizen back to the very country that had created its success.

Why Does Kaizen Work?

The process of making small, continuous improvements offers multiple benefits to people in every area of life. Whether you’re trying to improve your health, upgrade your business, learn new skills, improve your profitability or change your mindset, Kaizen provides several key advantages.

Getting regular small wins are important for boosting morale and self-esteem, both individually and in group settings. Kevin O’Leary, “Mr. Wonderful” from ABC’s Shark Tank, believes this concept has been critical in creating his fortune of more than 400 million dollars. In more than a decade of investing he says all of his returns have come from business owners who set “goals that are achievable.”

When goals “get achieved 80%, 90%, 95% of the time,” he says, “company morale goes up…. So employee turnover is less…and when you have less turnover of employees, productivity goes up and basically, your use of capital, your return on assets, goes higher, and the outcomes are better.”

Because small goals aren’t overwhelming and can be accomplished relatively quickly, stress is reduced and there is a dramatically higher chance of completion. Then, as your track record improves with each small win, you continue to build momentum and confidence.

Soon the ball is rolling and you’re well on your way to the next level of success.

The Four Steps of Kaizen

The process is simple enough for anyone to use while simultaneously powerful enough to be applied to any problem that needs solving. The system looks like this.

Step 1. Plan

  • Establish objectives (goals) and processes (plans/systems) to achieve desires results

Step 2. Do

  • Initiate processes. Small changes are made to the workflow. Data is gathered during the changes for further study and analysis.

Step 3. Check (or Study)

  • Data from “Do Phase” thoroughly studied and evaluated. Multiple tests run on data to determine effectiveness of changes. Testing of “test process” is also incorporated to ensure accurate analysis.

Step 4. Adapt (or Adjust / Act)

  • Data from both “Do Phase” and “Check Phase” analyzed to find small ways to improve. Possible areas of focus include fixing problems, addressing inefficiencies, eliminating issues that impede workflow and upgrading anything that will increase functionality.
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PDCA Graph courtesy of Johannes Vietze

Once the four steps of the PDCA cycle are put in place, a higher Standard is created which becomes your new normal or baseline for future experiences.

Application Into Daily Life

Let’s look at an example of Kaizen in action. First we need a challenging goal. Let’s say you really want to get a six-pack. Great! It’s an excellent goal but for the vast majority of guys it’s not going to be easy.

In order to have a six-pack you need under 10% bodyfat, which means if you’re like most men you’re going to have to lose quite a bit of weight. If you’re 6’0, 250 lbs and you have a medium build, you probably have somewhere around 33% body fat (about 82 lbs of fat). This means to get down to 10% body fat you’ll need to lose over 50 pounds of fat.

Losing 50 pounds is hard. If you follow the generally accepted speed for losing weight (about 1lb a week) it’s going to take a minimum of a year. And that’s assuming you don’t take any time off, you eat perfectly, you don’t fall off the wagon or get flustered and give up.

To accomplish this goal you will need to transform your eating habits, your exercise habits and your social habits. You will need increased discipline and willpower. You will need to change your weekend foods, your holiday foods and your “treat” foods. You will need to shop for groceries differently. You’ll need a group of people who can help you lose weight. You’ll need diet books and education on nutrition. You’ll need coaching and support.

In short, if you want to lose weight you’re going to have to change a LOT of things in your life. For most men getting a six-pack will be be a difficult, daunting task. So how can you make it happen without getting overwhelmed?

Kaizen is the answer.

Every part of your goal to lose the weight can be broken down into simple, daily activities that you add, one at a time, over the months to come. Your job is simply to apply the PDCA cycle and Kaizen to change everything that needs to change.

Step 1 – Plan

You’ll need some tools to help you start measuring where you are (We recommend starting with the MyFitnessPal app, a bathroom scale, a kitchen scale and body fat calipers.) You’ll need education about foods and how they affect your body. Start there and spend the next few weeks learning and preparing. Each day read a new article. Each week read a new book. Spend a few minutes every day (and no more) getting smarter and more knowledgeable about how carbs, fat and protein work, why you need them and the best (and worst) kinds of diets.

Once you understand the basics of how food functions in your body, make a smart and practical plan for your upcoming diet. Something simple, easy and doable for you.

Step 2 – Do

Start your diet. Eat the foods that you enjoy and that fit your plan. Eliminate the foods that aren’t helping you. Follow your program. And – here’s the big key – make sure you take notes. Pay attention to how you feel when you eat certain foods. Some will work for you and some won’t. Some recipes will be delicious, some not so much. You may find you need diet soda or you get headaches. You may get very tired in the afternoon.

Pay attention and write everything down. Use MFP (or other diet apps) to track your foods. Use  note-taking software (or an old-fashioned pen and paper) to write down how you feel. Get detailed. Become a scientist with your own body.

Remember, much of what you do at the beginning ISN’T GOING TO WORK. That’s absolutely okay. Not only should you not feel bad when something doesn’t work, you should get excited. Everything that doesn’t work can be changed and replaced with something that does. This is the process of making small improvements. It’s part of the process of success.

Step 3 – Check (Study)

The third step of Kaizen is taking inventory. At this point you’ve been working for a few days on your diet. You’ve kept track of everything you’ve eaten and you’ve written down how you felt. Now you get to analyze your data and find out what worked, what didn’t and why.

Did you find you hate the flavor of your daily protein shakes? Did you realize you love cottage cheese and fruit? Do you want to try just coffee with cream for breakfast? Are you ravenously hungry after 9pm at night? Do you always drink three beers while you’re watching the game? Do you eat ice cream whenever your wife or kids get their fix? Do you lose self control every time you see those chips in the pantry?

Study your process. Check what you did (or didn’t do.) Analyze your actions and figure out whether they’re helping you get closer to your goal or pushing it further away.

Step 4 – Adapt

The fourth step is where the change happens. Up until now you’ve started working, made your notes, and you analyzed what worked and what didn’t. Now it’s time to try something new.

The first chocolate protein shake you purchased tasted like dirty chalk so you buy three different kinds of protein shakes. After experimenting you find Shake #2 tastes like gritty chocolate medicine and Shake #3 tastes like bitter vitamins. However you’re pleased to find Shake #4 actually tastes pretty decent and it’s cheaper than the other three. Score! You now have a meal replacement you can use daily whenever you need one.

You kept getting super hungry after 9pm but after analyzing your diet you realized your dinners at 6pm were mostly refined carbs from pasta, rice and pizza. In addition you were only eating small amounts of protein in ground beef or turkey and you weren’t eating any filling vegetables. By reducing your carbs, doubling your evening protein and adding a large serving of broccoli, zucchini or brussel sprouts, 9pm rolls around and you find you’re no longer hungry. Success!

The fourth step of Kaizen is always changing because you’re always refining the process. There’s always something new to learn. There’s always a better way to do things.

Most importantly, you’re never doing anything that’s too big. You stay simple. You focus on the little things, the small, daily improvements that over time will add up to big changes.

Kaizen for Everything

Whether it’s losing 50 pounds, eliminating your debt, getting more sex, improving your relationships, deadlifting 350lbs, starting a business, running a marathon or any other major accomplishment in life, Kaizen can help you get the job done.

Plan, Do, Check and Adapt. Learn and grow just a little bit every day. As Lao-Tze said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And guess what? The rest of the journey is just one more step after the other.

Keep moving. Keep stepping. Keep making small, consistent improvements. Before you know it you’ll be at the end of your journey and success will be yours!

Get after it gents…and Stay Superior!

Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

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Jathan is passionate about helping create a community of great men. He enjoys beautiful women, altered states and Monty Python jokes. He lives in San Diego with two cats and a lot of books. Email him anytime at

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