Challenge and Kaizen:

Comfort Zone/ Challenge Sign Concept

Toyota describes the two pillars of the Toyota Way as “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People”. Of this, the continuous improvement pillar is comprised of;

  1. Challenge
  2. Kaizen (change for the better), and
  3. Genchi Genbutsu (Go to the source and grasp the actual facts)

In this post, I will be looking at the “Challenge” aspect of the Continuous Improvement pillar.

Challenge – Why?

The secret to Toyota’s success is its ability to maintain itself as a learning organization. In 1967 P. M. Fitts and I. M. Posner identified three progressive phases of learning a new skill;

  • The cognitive stage – we understand the skill, but we make plenty of mistakes in the process. We are identifying strategies to do better.
  • The associative stage – we are getting better and making less mistakes.
  • The autonomous stage – we are pretty good at this point and can do the task on autopilot

The danger of the autonomous stage is that one starts to create a comfort zone for himself and stops “learning”. Thus, he reaches a plateau and his performance begins to degrade. He begins becoming complacent and accepting his performance saying that “this is good enough”. Unfortunately he is in a blind spot at this point and does not realize what is going on. This atmosphere is detrimental to kaizen.

“Challenge” thus becomes an important factor to sustain kaizen. The “challenge” is not necessarily personal as in challenging the employee to work harder. The “challenge” is in asking the employee to do his best and change the status quo – to be outside his comfort zone. The employee is allowed to make mistakes and in turn is expected to learn from mistakes. The employee continues improving through continuous learning.

Final Words:

Yoshio Ishizaka, a Toyota veteran explained challenge as follows;

Challenge guides us to setting higher objectives for achieving an ideal condition and continuously realizing such goals with courage and creativity.

I will finish off with a funny Zen story about learning;

The son of a master thief asked his father to teach him the secrets of the trade. The old thief agreed and that night took his son to burglarize a large house. While the family was asleep, he silently led his young apprentice into a room that contained a clothes closet. The father told his son to go into the closet to pick out some clothes. When he did, his father quickly shut the door and locked him in. Then he went back outside, knocked loudly on the front door, thereby waking the family, and quickly slipped away before anyone saw him. Hours later, his son returned home, bedraggled and exhausted. “Father,” he cried angrily, “Why did you lock me in that closet? If I hadn’t been made desperate by my fear of getting caught, I never would have escaped. It took all my ingenuity to get out!” The old thief smiled. “Son, you have had your first lesson in the art of burglary.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Monument, Dynamo and Suitcase.

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