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"Research of Zen【善】"


Kaizen【改善】 = Continuous Improvement


We have used this translation for decades. I have used it. Many others have used it.


Once in a while, I do run into different views about Kaizen. For example, some believe that as long as it reduces the cost, even by sacrificing quality and humanity, it is Kaizen. That is the wrong interpretation. There’s something philosophically deeper about this Zen【善】.


This philosopher, named Kitaro Nishida, wrote a book called “Research of Zen【善】.” This book was popular in the 1920s. As I learned about his philosophy, I started to see the influence of his thinking toward a better understanding of Kaizen.


Nishida challenges binary thinking.

Good is about the realization of “Personality.”

Perceive others as self.

What good changes according to the “Pure experience.”


“Kaizen” is translated as continuous improvement. Change【改】 to good【善】. But Kaizen does not mean to improve the same way continuously. There is this constant questioning of what is in place. There are no answers. In many cases, we will challenge even those things that have improved.


When I think about the word Kaizen, I ran into a philosopher named Kitaro Nishida, who wrote a book called “Research of Zen【善】” in 1911. (Actually, I was researching about Ba.”) This book became popular in Japan in the 1920s. It was a required book for liberal arts college students in Japan. This “Liberal arts college” was not the same as today. Back in those days in Japan, the liberal colleges were preparing schools for Universities, even for mechanical engineers. Eiji Toyoda, Shoichiro Toyoda, and Shouichi Saito, those leaders who impacted the Toyota Production System, went to such colleges in the 1920s. Taiichi Ohno went to technical college about the same time, but they did have ethics and moral classes that could read this book. Many first-generation TPS leaders were commuting to the program during the boom of Nishida philosophy.


Even if someone has not read the book, the philosophy somewhat represents the era's thinking. In the Meji era, there was a thinking called 和魂洋才(Japanese Sprit Western Talent). This means that the Japanese tried to import technology and thinking from the West but maintained Japanese philosophies. Nishida's philosophical challenge was that he believed that the Eastern and Western philosophies are the same at the deep roots. Since both were thinking about human beings, it should be the same.


Here are some of Nishida’s philosophies on Zen【善】.


  1. Nishida challenges binary thinking.

Nishida challenges the binary thinking, such as Good or Bad. He challenges that there is no absolute good and the meaning of good could change by era. External standards do not define the good, but internal. He believed that everyone could become good.

This type of thinking might originate from India. I have written a blog in the past about “Muda,” which does not simply mean waste. It depends on how we see things. Nishida pays attention to the precondition of the binary state. I understood as seeing things without any bias. Even if I stated that something was “good” in the past, that might not be the case today. Don’t let the past decisions harm you today. In fact, Ohno’s first chapter of “Workplace Management” talks about the importance of changing action. It is always important to keep a fresh set of eyes.

Kaizen is written as 【改善】. We can read it as “Change【改】 for good【善】.” But, it could be read as a “Change of good,” meaning we change the recognition of what is “good.”



  1. Good is about the realization of “Personality.”

When Nishida was asked what Zen (Good)【善】, his answer was, “It is about the realization of “Personality.”

This word “Personality,” or Jinkaku 【人格】as Nishida wrote, requires attention.

First, when Japan started importing Western philosophies, the Japanese created the word Jinkaku for Personality. This means that it is influenced by many Western philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, who described it as a moral law we should follow as humans.


The second meaning, which is similar, is the highest state of humanity.


So, the meaning of Zen【善】 has much higher standards. Note that we have the word Kairyo in Japanese, similar to Kaizen. If I pick a word for improvement, Kairyo makes more sense. When we include Zen 【善】, it means something more.


  1. Perceive others as self.

Another binary thinking that Nishida challenged is Self【自】and Others【他】.  This is one of the highest levels of humanity that Nishida was thinking about to perceive others as self.


This is an interesting point. In TPS, the word Self【自】is used in Jidouka 【自働化】 or JikouteiKanketsu 【自工程完結】. This means that Self【自】 is important for TPS. But as a person’s position increases, the borderline between the Self and others requires attention. For example, for a team leader, teammates’ processes are all the team leader’s self-process. The team leader’s responsibilities are to help the team members (Others) and improve both team members and the team leader’s processes.

When this binary of Self【自】and Others【他】is strong, improvement of self could harm others. The other day, I overheard a conversation about a new system. “Every time this new system comes, they say things will become easy. But they don’t understand, who is it easy for. It's easy for them but more work for us.” Such improvement is not Kaizen since it doesn’t respect the philosophy of  Zen 【善】.

This philosophy is alive in Toyota. Akio Toyoda stated, “The purpose of the Toyota Production System (TPS) is to make someone else’s job easier.”


  1. What good changes according to the “Pure experience.”

As Nishida focuses on the preliminary state before the binary world, he states it is the “Pure Experience.” This is the status before subject/object, good/bad, or self/others. It is the fundamental direct experience before any reflection, concepts, interpretations, associations, or composition. Some state that it is the mindset that a child has which is undifferentiated and flexible. This “Pure experience” impacts the internal definition of good【善】.


What is the “Pure experience” of Kaizen?


First, I believe it’s the work itself. Just work and then reflect on what is good or bad.

Second is the Kaizen, or improvement without pre-information. It’s the ideas which you don’t know if it is going to be good or bad [Kaiaku]. It’s the trial and error state of improvement ideas. Today, we have much information about “good” Kaizen, and people rely on copying it. They seek for answers. Although those might provide quick wins, the Kaizen remains others and has no ownership. Many of my “Old-school” coaches have dumped me in Genba and told me to just “Kaizen.” As I reflect, that was my “Pure experience.” Failures during those experiences have a far stronger impact than success. And, as I coach more, creating this “Pure experience” becomes more critical. Let the people experiment with Kaizen and facilitate reflection. There’s more joy than just following what to do. And that’s when I recognize the deep thinking behind my coach's behaviors. As I mentioned, the episode of Ohno writing a cycle on the floor requires far more thought than randomly writing a circle on the floor.


“Zen” of Kaizen is a much deeper and more meaningful word. Yes, it is continuous improvement, but there’s more to think. This post might be a contaminated view of myself, but Nishida’s philosophy goes deeper. That insight will help us see a different view of the concept of Kaizen.

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