Get Better at Getting Better: The Kaizen Productivity Philosophy

Most productivity methods give you tools to tackle specific projects or to-dos in an organized way. Kaizen, which translates roughly to "good change," is a Japanese productivity philosophy that helps you organize everything you do. In short, it means "constant, continuous improvement," and is a mindset you can apply anywhere, at any job.

Kaizen is less of a productivity "system" that you use to organize a to-do list and more of a philosophy. Unlike the Getting Things Done (GTD) method and the Pomodoro Technique, Kaizen is a way of thinking and organizing everything—from the way you work to the way your team works together.

In short, this kind of continuous improvement can be broken down into six steps:

  1. Standardize: Come up with a process for a specific activity that's repeatable and organized.
  2. Measure: Examine whether the process is efficient using quantifiable data, like time to complete, hours spent, etc.
  3. Compare: Compare your measurements against your requirements. Does this process save time? Does it take too much time? Does it accomplish the desired result?
  4. Innovate: Search for new, better ways to do the same work or achieve the same result. Look for smarter, more efficient routes to the same end-goal that boost productivity.
  5. Standardize: Create repeatable, defined processes for those new, more efficient activities.
  6. Repeat: Go back to step one and start again.

It may seem exhausting, but once it's part of your mental approach to work, or your company (or team) culture, it’ll feel very natural. If you're always looking for better ways to do things, and you're always willing to give them a try, it's just a step up to formalize it and make sure everyone's on the same page.

Of course, we should point out that Kaizen is not change for change's sake. It's deliberate, constant improvement, and changes that don't actually bring you rewards shouldn't be made. Productivity is a double-edged sword after all. You can spend more time trying out new things and researching new tools than you would actually doing your work. Remember, the best productivity system is the one that helps you get things done, and the best apps are the ones you'll actually use. Keep that in mind when you're looking for ways to optimize your work.

As rosy as the Toyota story may be, the tenets are core to Kaizen as a productivity philosophy. Once embraced, the goal is to do better work, not just more work (to work smarter, not harder, as it were.) Similarly, it's important to make time to look for improvements and optimizations. Of course, this isn't for the sake of change, but to make your work—and by extension, your life—better. As always, the bottom line is to find a way to spend less time on the things you have to do, and gives you more time to do the things you want to do.

How to Make Kaizen Work for You?

Kaizen is easy to implement. Since it's more of a mental philosophy than an actual methodology, there are no tools to buy, apps to download, or planners to scribble in. Instead, making Kaizen work for you largely involves changing your approach to your work. It may seem like Kaizen has to be a corporate philosophy, but Kaizen works on a personal level, too. Here are a few tips.

First, stay on the lookout for better ways to do your own work. If you're usually busy, set aside regular time to get in touch with your work and your priorities. You can spend that downtime making sure you're doing things right—or doing your work in the best way possible. The one-hour Weekly Review is a good way to do this, since the goal of the review is to do just that. It takes you out of the trenches and gives you a 10,000-foot view of your work. Alternatively, use an app like RescueTime to track how you work. You'll get valuable insight into how you spend your day, and where your time goes. With that perspective, you can see how you spend your time, where it's being wasted, and get more engaged with why you're doing what you do.

Similarly, Google employees famously used to spend 20% of their time looking for better ways to work, and 80% of their time doing their regular jobs. Google has since minimized the policy, but the idea is still sound. If you can carve out time to try new ways to work, or try passion projects that may take you in new and interesting directions, you'll get that time back when you discover better techniques or faster tools. If 20% seems aggressive, try 10%—even a few hours a week talking to your boss about ways you can streamline your work, clear your plate, or a new tool that makes everyone's job easier can make a world of difference—as long as you're open to it and looking for it. That's slow, continuous, constant improvement.

When you do find a way to make your work more efficient, spend some time investigating it. If it meshes with your style and the type of work that you do, give it a shot and see if it saves you time. If you work on a team, be open to constructive criticism and feedback from the people you work with. You never know when someone you work with will propose a change or tweak to your current way of doing things that can save time and energy for everyone. If you're immediately defensive because "this is the way we've always done things," you may miss a valuable opportunity to do things better. Remember,start small, and take small steps. That's the essence of Kaizen.

How to Keep Kaizen In Mind When You're Busy with Work?

The practical applications of Kaizen are great, but they still involve getting time away from your work so you can think about how to do your work better. It's also important to keep the basic principles in mind while you're working—you don't want to be so absorbed in your job that you miss something important, or shy away from speaking up when you have something to offer. You don't, for example, want to be the assembly line worker who sees the half-attached bumper and wrong tires mounted to the vehicle you're working on, but let them go down the line because your job is just to attach the side-view mirrors.

One of the immediate benefits of Kaizen is a sense of ownership and the authority over your work. Ideally, everyone should feel engaged with and passionate about the work they do, from start to finish, and everyone should do what it takes to make the final product as good as it can be. Whether you work on the side mirrors or the tire mounting, you should want that vehicle to leave the line in perfect condition. It can be tough if your job tries to isolate you, or you feel disengaged and beaten down, but it's that sense of rewarding work that really keeps us motivated. If you don't have it, do what you can to get it, or look for a job where you can.

Similarly, another principle of Kaizen is to minimize waste wherever possible. That doesn't just mean wasted time and energy doing your work, but wasted effort that's tangential to work. Spending time in meetings that don't need to happen, for example, or writing up status reports that never get read, are good examples of waste that could give you time back to work—or look for better ways to work. Sure, some meetings have to happen, and status reports can be important, but if they're not helpful, offload them, find a way to automate them, or delegate them to someone else. If managing your inbox takes up too much of your day, look for systems that will organize it for you or automate it entirely so you only see and deal with what's important. Every hour you power through because you think you don't have time to try something better is an hour wasted.

It's easy to just keep doing things the familiar way just to make it to the end of the day, but doing so stifles improvement. When you look for better ways to work, you learn new skills, accomplish goals you're proud of, make yourself more valuable to your job (or any job), make positive changes, and of course, save time and energy. It's not easy, but it's worth it.

Sourse article: A. Henry, Lifehacker

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