Some time ago I appended a pair of characters to the end of my twitter bio. They paired well with where I was at that time and how I was beginning to feel about my life. I was seeking change for the better.
These Sino-Japanese characters are Kai and Zen—Kaizen when used together–and mean improvement. When Toyota started to use the term as part of its underlying lean manufacturing principles, the common meaning bent towards the way the car maker was using it: continuous improvement. In combining ‘kai’ and ‘zen,’ each individual makes sacrifices for the betterment of the entire group. The cycle of kaizen activity as laid out in The Toyota Way (and popularized in the West by W. Edwards Deming) is: Plan → Do → Check → Act.
When I "discovered" the symbols, I had believed just that they were beautiful to look at and elegantly illustrated a concept that appealed to me. It's not only appropriate now, that I apply these symbols to my life—as I look to get more involved with charitable endeavors and work on myself—but it also ties into the application of agile methodologies that I've employed during the last 15 years of my career in software development and startups.
There are likely other ways to understand kaizen or live the philosophy of kaizen that could be beyond me.
One does not really ‘understand’ the cultural connotations of kaizen, but rather ‘feels’ and ‘senses’ its presence living in modern-day Japan. In Japan, an entity or product without kaizen is like a bowl of rice without miso soup–one simply flourishes by enhancing the other. [Source]
While I may never fully come to understand all that it means, I will likely still keep these two symbols in my various social media profiles as a small reminder to always be changing for the better.
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