A Brief Look at Kaizen in the Light of the Toyota Way:

chie to kaizen

I have talked many times in this blog about the “Toyota Way 2001”. The Toyota Way was an embodiment of Toyota’s management philosophy and values that were passed on to its employees as implicit knowledge. Due to rapid global expansion, Toyota Management decided to write down this implicit knowledge into a booklet – Toyota Way 2001, in order to help expand their production system properly across the globe.

The Toyota Way has two pillars – “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People”. The “Continuous Improvement” pillar stands on three principles:

  • Challenge
  • Kaizen
  • Genchi Genbutsu


All is good up to this point. “Kaizen” is often translated as “Continuous Improvement”. I saw this as a linguistic “chicken or egg situation”: How can kaizen be one of the three principles of “Continuous Improvement” when kaizen itself is “continuous improvement”? Why was the pillar not named simply as “Kaizen”?

Michel Baudin has written about it here. He has shown that the pillar is actually termed “Chie to Kaizen” in the Japanese version of Toyota Way 2001. “Chie to Kaizen” is translated as “Wisdom and Continuous Improvement”. I encourage the readers to check out Michel’s blog post.

Kaizen in Japanese is not translated literally as “continuous improvement”. The literal meaning is “change for better”. The Japanese word kaizen is derived from the Chinese word gaishan. They both mean “to improve”. Kaizen is written as 改善 in both Chinese and Japanese. This is because Japanese language uses a lot of characters adopted from Chinese language called Kanji. Apparently, to distinguish between “kaizen – improvement” and “kaizen – continuous improvement”, several Japanese writers have started using “カイゼン”, which reads the same. “カイゼン” is written in Katakana script, one of several writing components in the Japanese language, besides Kanji. Katakana is generally used for words imported from foreign languages. Thus when you translate the word “カイゼン” into English through Google Translator, you will find that the word translates to “Kaizen” in English. I am assuming that Kaizen in English means “Continuous Improvement.” 🙂


Wisdom/Intelligence and Continuous Improvement:

The only source where the pillar is not called as “Continuous Improvement” in English by a Toyota personnel that I could find, was “The Toyota Way in Sales and Marketing” by Yoshio Ishizaka. In this book, the first pillar is called as “Intelligence and Kaizen”. In my eyes, this is a better phrasing for the pillar. Ishizaka explains this pillar as follows;

Intelligence and Kaizen describes an attitude in which you are never satisfied with the current condition and continuously develop innovative ideas yielding higher added values.

Kaizen achieves a better meaning when viewed in the light of Challenge and Genchi Genbutsu. There is a sense of continuity towards improvement with this view. This meaning is more synonymous to “Continuous Improvement”. Let’s look at the other two principles: Challenge and Genchi Genbutsu.

Challenge: The key point here is to challenge the status quo. Do not be satisfied with your current state. There is almost always a better way of doing things. This may push you outside your comfort zones. But that is how you can continuously improve. This principle also encourages us to have a long term vision, and to move towards it at all times. As Toyota puts it “Working at Toyota is also an exercise in long-term thinking.”

Genchi Genbutsu: This is described as “going to the actual source and getting the actual facts” so that you can make the correct decisions. It is looked down upon in Toyota to make decisions based on data (on paper) alone. You have to be at the gemba to understand the problem.

My final words:

I will finish this post with a story I read that has the spirit of “chie to kaizen”.

Once upon a time a very strong woodcutter asked for a job from a timber merchant, and he got it. The pay was really good and so were the work conditions. The woodcutter was determined to do his best.
His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he was supposed to work. The first day, the woodcutter cut down 18 trees.

“Congratulations,” the boss said. “Go on that way!” Very motivated for the boss’ words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could only cut down 15 trees.

The third day he tried even harder, but he could only cut down 10 trees. Day after day he was bringing fewer and fewer trees.
“I must be losing my strength”, the woodcutter thought. He went to the boss and apologized, saying that he could not understand what was going on.

“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?” the boss asked.

“Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been very busy trying to cut trees”, the woodcutter responded.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Don’t be an Expert at the Gemba.


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