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10 Sep 2019

Kaizen 改善

Kaizen is the Japanese word for improvement. In life we do many things repeatedly. While we will naturally improve through repitition, it makes sense to consciously be aware of improvement opportunities.

There are a huge range of applications of Kaizen, the most famous is The Toyota Way. There have been a ton of studies on this, so I’ll focus on some areas that are more relevant to myself.

Kaizen in Software Development

Software development has seen a shift from monolithic chunks of work into iterative cycles focused on improvement. Scrum and kanban are prime examples of this.

A kanban system breaks up a project into single units of work that are each completed in series. Work can always be reprioritized and refined in order to create a result that matches closest to stakeholders expectations. The continuous feedback and micro releases help the team to see what is working and change processes and deliverables to achieve the most desirable result.

Constant change and uncertainty can be hard to manage, and the lack of future focus leads to inefficiencies. Scrum is an attempt to find a happy medium. Standardising the work into discrete blocks and locking down requirements helps the team focus on micro goals while maintaining a level of flexibility. I like to think of scrum as iterative waterfall. Maybe that’s a conversation for another post. Between (and during) these iterations, there is a focus on the team processes and finding ways to improve for future iterations.

Both these processes (and many more) focus on improving and refining the process and the work to create a desirable product. This is akin to the kaizen principals.

Goals are for Losers

While goals are helpful to drive you and set expectations, they are not effective in getting you to where you want to be. With a goal you are in a perpetual state of failure and the moment you have achieved your goal, it is of no use to you anymore. What’s really important is the systems these goals but in place.

Goal vs System Example

Consider your goal to run a marathon.

If you follow the goal, you might follow the ever popular Couch 2 5k running plan and supplementary plans. These plans tell you to run x distance or time on y day. You follow the plan and at the end you can run the marathon and do well. This is a goal driven strategy.

If you take a systems approach, you may decide to run every day. Each day or so you look at your running route and see if it’s working for you, and if it’s not, you change it. You keep it easy and keep changing it until it works for you. You follow this system and at the end you can run the marathon. You might not do as well as the goal based approach, but you’ll still get there.

Some points to note. During the training, each day for the goal driven approach is a battle. You either do the entire planned training activity or you fail that day. This may not seem like a big deal, but it can be a killer to motivation. The systems approach is easier. It’s loosely defined, yet still beneficial. The system is low friction and therefore you are less likely to fail. You might not do as much but it’s still a success, which keeps you motivated to continue.

The real kicker is what happens after your end goal (the marathon) is met. With the goal based approach your training plan is finished and you’ve succeeded. You had some ups and downs along the way but now you are finished. The systems approach has instead built a habit. You’ve run your marathon, but your system doesn’t care. You’ve focused on continuous improvement and created something that you will carry on to keep you improving for the long term. Even if you end up dropping your system later on, you’ve developed a ton of knowledge that will let you start off in a better position if you ever decide to run another marathon.

Note: a true systems based approach wouldn’t consider running the marathon as part of the process at all. It’s useful in order to build the drive to create the initial system, but it is not part of the system itself and failing to run the marathon wouldn’t be detrimental to the system’s effectiveness. The key is learning what works for you so that you can do better next time.


Goals are one off targets you hit or miss. Systems set you up for continuous improvements over your lifetime.


Learning through failure is not failure. Real failure is the inability to learn from failure.

When you stop looking at things as goals and instead look at them as learning opportunities, the success no longer matters.

A lot of people have a fear of failure so bad that they choose not to try at all. This is picking the worst case scenario. When you try, you either succeed by doing or fail by not doing; so by not trying you are picking failure. But not even trying is even worse than that, because you miss out on valuable learning opportunities. When you try and fail, you gain insights into how you can do better next time, and that is what improvement is about.

Real Life Application

The running example above is a good example of a system in real life. I’ve posted previous about some of the systems I use in my post about habits.

The most effective systems are ones that you do frequently and automatically. They have a low friction to start and low consequence if you fail. Creating habits is the easiest way to achieve this. Check out that post about habits for more information.

If you believe in the benefits of continuous improvement, I highly recommend reading that post about habits. Especially the advanced strategies to created sticky habits.

Thanks for reading

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