In recent years, Japanese philosophy has had a profound effect on the West. Practices such as ikigai and yugen have become popular for developing a positive mental health routine. Yet one of the earliest Japanese practices to take off in the West happened to be an amalgamation of both cultures called kaizen.
A Japanese noun for ‘improvement,’ kaizen is all about making continuous change throughout life. In Kaizen: The Japanese Method Of Transforming Habits One Small Step at a Time, Sarah Harvey explores the practice in great detail. But rather than just being a typical self-help book, Harvey goes deeper by examining the history of kaizen and introducing psychological theory as well.
The roots of kaizen
Harvey takes the reader on the journey through the origins of kaizen and how it transcended the business world and became applicable to everyday life.
“You could see the philosophy of kaizen as a very much ‘East-meets-West’ in that the business theory was actually conceived by the US government, but then brought over and used to great effect in post-World War II Japan.”
“The idea of continuous improvement was first trialled in the States during the Second World War, when it was found that businesses were struggling to innovate and keep up with supplies for the war effort when so many men were abroad fighting the war. As such, the US government created a series of programmes called Training Within Industries (TWI), which aimed to stimulate business. The emphasis was put on the existing workforce to pay attention to working practices and suggest methods of improvement.”
“The Japanese were immediately enthralled with this new management technique of continuous improvement and christened it kaizen, the already common noun in Japanese used to mean ‘good change’ or ‘improvement.’”
Harvey credits Japanese business mogul Masaaki Imai as popularising the theory within a business setting and motivating the people he worked with to strive for constant improvement, which eventually crossed over into personal wellbeing and lifestyle management.
Putting kaizen into practice
As everyone’s goals are different, Harvey lays out various techniques on how to embrace kaizen, such as breaking down the challenges you want to overcome one step at a time or looking at a certain time frame for when you want to achieve something short-term or long-term.
Each section of the book is split into easy to follow sections like kenko (health), okane (money) and kankei (relationships). Noteworthy techniques include adopting a mindful eating approach, which involves focusing on one dish per day to eat without any distraction. It means disconnecting yourself from technology and enjoying every last mouthful to feel more connected to the food and the moment.
Another technique involves doing a relationship inventory and asking yourself the following questions:
- What are the main emotions that the thought of this person evoke? (Happiness, sadness, anxiety etc)
- Does this person make an equal effort with me?
- Does this person enrich my life by being in it?
- Do I feel independent enough from this person?
But Harvey also acknowledges that there will be stumbling blocks and kaizen isn’t a linear path. Kaizen is a life-long commitment and a journey that everyone is on. And it’s not about making life-altering decisions in the blink of an eye. The essence of kaizen is taking it a step at a time.