top of page

Kaizen: A Wastefully Misunderstood Word

Updated: Feb 16, 2019

Kaizen is a word made famous by the success of The Toyota Way, and generally translated as continuous incremental improvement. A few years back some smartypants* who doesn't speak Japanese declared in Wikipedia that 'continous incremental improvement' is a made-up translation, and that the characters simply mean 'Change for Good'. People trust Wikipedia. Do a Google image search, and 'Change for Good' is how people on the internet are translating Kaizen these days. And they are wrong.

No mate, it doesn't simply mean 'Change' for 'Good'. This is a nuanced, sophisitcated word from a complex, sensitve culture, so lets have a little Japanese lesson here. This is for your own benefit. If you put 'change' into a Japanese dictonary, these are the choices you get:

代  substitute; change; convert; replace; period; age; counter for decades of ages, eras, etc.; generation; charge; rate; fee 動 move; motion; change; confusion; shift; shake 化 change; take the form of; influence; enchant; delude; -ization 転 revolve; turn around; change 改 reformation; change; modify; mend; renew; examine; inspect; search 変 unusual; change; strange 移 shift; move; change; drift; catch (cold, fire); pass into   

換 interchange; period; change; convert; replace; renew 為 do; change; make; benefit; welfare; be of use; reach to; try; practice; cost; serve as; good; advantage; as a result of 翻 flip; turn over; wave; flutter; change (mind) 遷 transition; move; change 爲change; be of use; reach to; do; try; practice; cost; serve as 找 look for; seek; make change 變 change; strange 渝change; be transformed 垔to restrain; to dam a stream and change its direction; mound 恑to change; to alter; to accommodate oneself to

They all mean change, and none of them are the change that Toyota's great Taiichi Ono had in mind when he taked about kaizen.

This is the one:

改 reformation; change; modify; mend; renew; examine; inspect; search

Kaizen is clearly about adapting what you've already got to be better. A clue to the spirit of the word is the 攵 compontent, or radical, which represents a whip for hearding cows. Though I don't like the use of force or being told what to do, I've come to befriend this kanji. Its found in words that imply causing things to go in a certain direction, to cultivate them for our benefit. Plus I live on a farm with heaps of cute cows, who sometimes need hearding.

改良 Kairyo is another word Taiihi Ono used to describe Toyota Processes, distinct from Kaizen.

I used this word for years in my Permaculture presentations. I thought it just meant 'selective breeding', as I'd never heard it in any other contexts. Selective breeding is about skillfully noticing the strenghts and weaknesses in plants and animals over generations, to get whats useful to humans. 'Kai' for 'change', 'ryo' for 'good' together they mean 'selective breeding'. If you create with people and machines rather than livestock, then 'continuous incremental improvement' is a suitable equivalent. Maybe Kairyo has other uses I'm not yet aware of. But nobody would use it to mean 'change for good', which is so simple its almost meaningless, a word that carries no power. So to work out the difference between Kaizen and Kairyo, you'll need to put 'good' in a Japanese dictionary. Tangorin lists 23 alternatives. So may ways to be good. Here are two:

Zen 善: good; goodness; right; virtue. Its antonym is aku, 悪 evil.

Ryo 良: 1. good 2. B grade (in an A, B, C, D marking system at school)

How is being virtuous different from having a pretty good, B-grade result? There is the obvious difference of degree. But not just that. The whole relm is different. Its about the human spirit. Lets look at the deeper meaning in English

Virtue, it turns out, comes Old French vertu, from Latin virtus ‘valour, merit, moral perfection’, from vir ‘man’. When you are virile, you are live-giving. You are strong enough to survive the competition, and to make progeny, to create things that will be there after you are gone. There are plenty of womanly ways to be 'valorous' and bravely create lasting value. Heroism is built in to Kaizen. The reason I'm writing this this is because I love this word, and it hurts me to see it misrepresented. When I'm stuck, when I want to make something but don't know how, I remember kaizen. Just do something, make progress, try things out and make them better. Get things to evolve themselves into being. Thats how I create a drawing, a meal, a household, or an invention, like the self-watering balcony garden Im so proud of, the only one in the world.

But these creations I make, I don't always get paid. They don't always get appreciated. Again, this word Kaizen, properly translated is a consolation. Ultimately I make my creations for the evolution of my spirt. Because I want to be a hero.

'Continuous incremental improvement'; is a perfectly good translation for Kaizen. 'Improvement' indicates starting with what youve got, and making it better. The 'continuous' part is heroic - you never stop. 'Incremental' is a word that is small enough to get us into action, its encouraging. It doesn't have to be a big change, just a big spirit making the change. Do it daily, and amaze ourselves by where we end up. 'Continuous Incremental Improvment' sounds better on the factory floor and boardroom than 'valorous betterment'. But I know in my heart what it really means, and thats what matters.

'Never abandon your Kaizen Spirit' orginal Taiichi Ono calligraphy, Toyota Training Centre, Gifu

*The 'Change for Better' wikipedia author is actually a smart, original thinker. I checked out his other work. He questions prevailing wisdom, which I like. He overstreached here. This word is my friend, and you defend your friends.

Exciting Update: I wrote this yesterday, and today the 'Change for Good' translation has been edited out of Wikipedia, after annoying me for years. Could this be a victory?

204 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

A lovey discussion about word origins and cultural interpretation. I like the tone of striving to improve with valour. For me, It denotes courage and being willing to experiment even with the chance of failing.

bottom of page