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Zen


When it comes to addressing Kaizen struggles, the practical wisdom of Zen offers invaluable insights. This rich philosophy provides a treasure trove of ideas that can be directly applied to your or your organization’s challenges. Which of these practical insights do you find most applicable to your Kaizen struggles?



While the terms 'Kaizen' and 'Zazen' may sound similar, it's important to note that they are distinct and offer unique perspectives. ‘Zazen is written as 【坐禅】, and 'Kaizen' is written as 【改善】. These two idioms represent entirely different ideas, each with unique insights and approaches that can be beneficial in their way.


When encountering challenges in Kaizen's progress, I often turn to the philosophies of “Zazen” or simply “Zen” for guidance. Zen, a form of meditation practiced by Buddha, was one of his methods of reaching a higher state. While meditation alone may not directly contribute to Kaizen, the reflective nature of Zen can be a valuable tool in improving Kaizen activities as we engage in them.


Zen is not one. There are many thoughts on Zen. When Zen arrived in China, many types of Zen were generated. These sects of Zen have asked not to be collectively called Zen. (But for convenience, I will keep it as Zen in this post.) Each sect has unique thoughts, which help reflect on self-activity. I will only introduce two of those in this post since this is not a religious post.


One group is called Soto. This style of Zen focuses on doing Zen. They call this Shikantaza【只管打坐】, which means focusing on Zen. By concentrating on Zen, you should not think about other things and reach this state of enlightenment. This goes well with an essential lesson of Buddhism, Issinhuran【一心不乱】, meaning “Focus on one thing and don’t get distracted.”


Another group is called Rinzai. In this style, as you practice Zen, the practitioner must consider Koan, a question, story, or dialogue. An important note is that there is not an answer to each Koan. The practitioner will submit an answer, but the master will challenge it repeatedly. Some standard questions are designed to help the practitioner develop at their level. Some say that since Koan exists, future generations could reach a higher state even if the current state has not reached it.


For ordinary people like me, these thoughts provide essential lessons in our daily lives, especially Kaizen.


“Just focus on Kaizen.” This is an essential phrase that my coach frequently used. There are many distractions. There are meetings. Some weird email comes daily. Distractions are everywhere. We could easily get overwhelmed by those daily hurdles and forget about Kaizen. “Sorry we were busy” is a frequent excuse. But when are we not busy? In such cases, I need to prioritize myself, doing Kaizen, which is the most important thing, and design my schedule. I create and protect some time to work on Kaizen. Other duties can be cleaned up quickly when such a priority becomes clear. To some degree, Taiichi Ohno was known for this style.


At the same time, critical questioning from my coaches provided so much richness. I sometimes felt confused at those times, but reflecting on it later, I appreciate that coaching. And there might be some Koan. For example, what is the difference between Kaizen and Kairyo 【改良】? Because Toyota has disclosed some of the dialogue between Ohno and Suzumura with their students, we can get some insights about Kaizen.


Since I am not a high-state monk and an ordinary person, which is right is not my question. How can I learn and apply to Kaizen from both is essential.


Whenever I mention this story about Zen, people say one is for beginners, and the other is for advanced. Typically, Rinzai is for beginners, and Soto is for advanced. This is biased from my point of view.


In today’s world, I feel sorry for the beginners who could not focus on Kaizen. In the early days, I was given an environment where I concentrated on Kaizen. There was no major meeting. Full access to things I need to use to implement Kaizen on your own hand. (In some cases, I had no phone and limited internet, which was a little extreme.) Creating an environment where people can focus on Kaizen and leading by action is the crucial role of a manager. The weak manager collects people into meetings when each participant only participates for a few minutes. Waiting is not a value-adding work.

Also, I was allowed to work on anything I came up with. The important lesson here was to observe the shop floor and think and act independently. The coach didn’t want to develop someone who only reacted to orders. Waiting for an order is a complete waste. Thinking and acting on one’s initiative is critical. It is like a kids' sport. Let them play first, and formal stuff comes later. Targets came later.

Also, it is essential to focus on Kaizen, even at the senior level. My coach said, “Fine tuning.” Skills that are not used get rusted. The only way to sustain Kaizen capabilities is to use them.


On the other hand, a dialogue with a coach is valuable at any level. I can’t imagine someone self-developing all the way. It is a known fact that Ishida or Toyoda challenged Ohno. Those challenges developed TPS. It is true that as we grow, our opportunities to get coached diminish. But then, we learn that time with a coach is precious; therefore, we become good at asking questions. It can’t be too general. Our thoughts need to be organized. I must ask the right question at the right time at the right Genba. The dialogue between the TPS coaches is short, sometimes just pointing fingers at a phenomenon. But that is enough if the student side has done its preparations. How to maximize that precious time is the learning.


There are many other lessons in Zen. Comparing Zen with different methods, such as Socrates' method, provides additional insights. What can we learn from those and apply them to Kaizen? After all, Kaizen is a continuous learning journey.

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