The fear of a major revolution often stops us from making important changes, which could have a significant impact on the quality of our performance. We can banish this fear by adopting a Kaizen mindset which helps us introduce the change in small, more acceptable steps. 

Let’s start from the language. Translated into English, Kai Zen ( 改善in Japanese) means “good change”. However, I will use the Japanese term Kai Zen. In Japan, the majority of managers consider change to be quite natural. Before taking a closer look at the Kaizen philosophy, I’d like to quote a fragment of Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen, the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success:   

Recently, an American executive at a large multinational firm told me his company chairman had said at the start of an executive committee meeting: ‘Gentlemen, our job is to manage change. If we fail, we must change management.” The executive smiled and said, ‘We all got the message!’

In Japan, change is a way of life, too. But are we talking about the same change when we talk managing change or else changing management? It dawned on me that there might be different kinds of change: gradual and abrupt. While we can easily observe both gradual and abrupt changes in Japan, gradual change is not so obvious a part of the Western way of life. How are we to explain this difference? 

This question led me to consider the question of values. Could it be that differences between the value systems in Japan and the West account for their different attitudes toward gradual change and abrupt change? Abrupt changes are easily grasped by everyone concerned, and people are usually elated to see them.  This is generally true in both Japan and the West. 

As the author points out later in his book, the difference lies in the attitude to change. In Japan, the Kaizen approach is so natural and obvious to organisations that they often practice it without even knowing it. It is unthinkable that a Japanese company remains unchanged for years, while the Western firms can resist change for a quarter of a century or longer. 

In simple terms, Kaizen means improvement. It involves everyone, from low-ranking employees to top management. Achieving synergy between innovation and Kaizen is the best recipe for success, claims Imai. 

What is the history of the Kaizen philosophy? More than just a management concept, Kaizen is an integral part of the Japanese culture. It promotes striving for perfection on many levels, including private and family life, as well as professional career. The philosophy originated with management techniques and work organisation on the Japanese market in the 1940s. It was first described in 1986 in the already mentioned book authored by the Father of Kaizen Masaaki Imai. Among companies practicing Kaizen are Toyota, Honda and Sony. In Poland, Kaizen has been applied by Esselte (it was adopted by the firm’s production plant in Kozienice in 2002), Kraft Foods Polska, MASTERFOODS Polska and Unilever Polska, among others.


Katarzyna Zemła
User Experience Practitioner, Design Thinking and Kaizen Master, Lean Management Strategist