Provision #739: Kaizen Matters

Laser Provision

I don’t know of a leader who is not concerned with improving performance. That is, after all, an essential part of a leader’s job description. No leader aims to keep things the same, let alone to make things worse. Leaders are change agents with a single-minded focus on making things better. But how do we actually do that? Although, as you will read, I have some objections to traditional problem-based learning, focused, as it is, on determining and fixing the causes of whatever is impairing performance, I nevertheless appreciate the emphasis on continuous improvement and I especially appreciate the orientation of the Japanese TQM process known as “kaizen.” Never heard of it? Read on to learn more!

LifeTrek Provision


It would be hard for a series of Provisions on evocative leadership to be complete without addressing the notion of continuous improvement and Total Quality Management or TQM. These concepts have entered the leadership lexicon not only in business, where they originated, but in just about every other field of human endeavor. Non-profits, schools, and even religious organizations have adopted elements of this philosophy and approach for both planning and execution of their work.

The concept is simple to describe but hard to practice: everyone in an organization, at every level and at all times, is constantly striving to make things better. Sounds both easy and obvious, right? Who doesn’t want that? In a word: most of us. Most people find it easier to do what we have always done than to shake things up with even small changes, let alone big ones. How does the old expression go? “Better the devil we know, than the devil we don’t know.”

Something there is that’s comforting about an old, familiar rut. Even when that rut has outlived its usefulness, even when it starts to pinch and hurt a bit, even when it becomes more of a toleration than a joy, the familiarity of the routine meets our needs for safety and security, order and predictability. Once we have learned what to do and how to do it, our momentum has a way of carrying us forward. “We’ve never done it that way before!” becomes a justification for never doing it that way in the future. People, like other animals, are creatures of habit.

That’s especially true when you consider the social implications of change. If there is a better way to do something then people assume there must be something “wrong” with the way we are doing things now. At least that’s the way our brains process the notion of making things better. We don’t see it as an amoral and natural part of life; we see it as a matter of evaluating and judging the way we have been doing things as somehow inadequate, deficient, and flawed. From that vantage point, no wonder change is so threatening! It represents an indictment of the status quo.

The first job of any leader, then, who is concerned about continuous improvement and TQM is to detach the status quo from a moral sense of “oughtness” that is linked to our self-worth as human beings. Until we make that shift in our way of being, TQM will never become embedded in the culture of our organizations. When we talk about improvement and quality, people will be nervously watching their backs to get a sense of where the finger is pointing and where the axe may fall. Until and unless we disconnect the prospect of future improvements from the critique of current deficiencies, there is no way for TQM to take hold and take off.

Of all the systems for continuous improvement and TQM, including Six Sigma and Lean Enterprise, the original and still the best hearkens back to the work of William Edwards Deming, an American statistician, professor, lecturer, and consultant who rose to fame through his work with the Japanese manufacturing and business community in the decades following World War II. If Japanese cars and products have a stronger reputation for quality than American cars and products, it’s because of Deming. Ironically, given that Deming was himself an American, it was only after Japanese companies had demonstrated superior quality processes that American companies took note of what Deming had been doing for many decades.

Before World War II, Deming was among those who had called into question Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” approach to deconstructing manufacturing and business processes into discreet units that could be sampled, measured, and manipulated with time and motion studies so as to improve both their throughputs and their outputs. For management to view and treat workers as disposable parts, without harnessing their power of mind to make things better, was not, in Deming’s view, a tenable approach to either organizational effectiveness or efficiency. Happy employees are more likely to be not only productive employees but to also find ways to improve organizational processes.

Deming did not reject the value of statistical methods for improving production and management. He rather expanded their scope to study not only workers but management and leadership as well. In so doing, he launched a quality movement that continues to this very day. Before World War II, Deming honed his philosophy and put it to work with the US census bureau. During the War, he was part of a team that helped to improve standards and wartime production. After the War, however, in the face of huge overseas demand for American products, Deming encountered a waning interest in continuous improvement and TQM. Why bother to spend money on TQM, when everyone wanted what America had to sell, regardless of its quality?

The Japanese, on the other hand, devastated as they were from the War, could not be so cavalier. To rebuild their society and their economy, they were hungry for what Deming had to offer: a lean way of getting things done through people with ever more efficiency, effectiveness, and quality. The message fell on fertile soil. After more than a decade of work, Deming was awarded the second highest rank in Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasurer by the Prime Minister and Emperor of the country. The citation on the medal recognizes Deming’s contribution to Japan’s industrial rebirth and worldwide success after the War.

Deming was so influential that he is credited with launching the Total Quality Movement in manufacturing and business. When American businesses needed to become more competitive in the 1970s and 1980s, they brought in Deming as a consultant to help turn things around. Ford Motor Company, most notably, worked with Deming to develop not only a new image but also a new corporate culture that came to be summarized in their now-famous slogan, “Quality Is Job One.” Deming’s approach to TQM is summarized by his 14 key principles for transforming business effectiveness. First published in the early 1980s, these principles continue to define TQM in ways that stand in stark contrast to many management gurus:

  1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and stay in business, and to provide jobs.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.
  3. Cease reliance on mass inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.
  4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.
  5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.
  6. Institute training on the job.
  7. Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.
  8. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
  9. Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
  11. (a.) Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership. (b.) Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
  12. (a.) Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from mere numbers to quality. (b.) Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.
  13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
  14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.

Those principles are certainly not scientific management in the Frederick Taylor sense of the word. They are not even commonly advocated by many, modern management gurus. Eliminate management by objective? Heresy! Abolish the annual or merit rating system? Impossible! Such tenets have permeated every corner of society, with education being a prominent contemporary battleground. There is more, not less, pressure to set objectives, to evaluate performance on the basis of those objectives, and to mete out rewards and punishments to those who excel and those who fail to measure up.

What’s wrong with that? Read Deming’s principles. Do such high-pressure tactics “create constancy of purpose”? Do they “eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis”? Do they foster “long-term relationships of loyalty and trust”? Do they inspire everyone to have an equal concern for quality, “improving constantly and forever the system of production and service”? Do they “drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively”? Do they “break down barriers between departments” and people? Do they mitigate “adversarial relationships”? Do they “put everybody to work to accomplish the transformation”?

Of course not! Those organizational qualities cannot be legislated, manipulated, or mandated from above. They can only be inspired through mutual respect and a common commitment to continuous improvement. That was what the Japanese learned from Dr. Deming, and they called it “kaizen.” The word is a Japanese word constructed from two ideographs, the first of which represents “change” and the second “goodness” or “virtue.” Kaizen therefore literally means “good change” and is commonly used to indicate the long-term betterment of something or someone as in the phrase “Seikatsu o kaizen suru” which means to •better one’s life.• It is frequently explained as a “continuous striving for perfection.”

No wonder “kaizen” came to encapsulate that to which Deming devoted his entire life. It is both a philosophy of life and a practice of leadership. The present moment, whatever its shortcomings, is never wrong. It simply is what it is. It is the starting place for all that is to follow, and it is a perfect place to start. Indeed, there is no other place to start! The present moment contains all the ingredients from which we can learn, build, and grow. We need only to appreciate this moment as a gift in order to take our own game, as well as that of others, to ever higher levels of performance and satisfaction.

Those are the twin pillars of continuous improvement. The two drive each other in a never-ending cycle of TQM. The better our performance, the greater our satisfaction. The greater our satisfaction, the better our performance. Those two dimensions are dynamic and interactive. Step by step, however incremental, we strive to make things better.

So don’t wonder what’s wrong with people and get down on them if they fail to demonstrate that attitude. Don’t crack the whip and try to incentivize them with extrinsic motivators. Instead, adopt a philosophy of “kaizen” in your life and in your work. Keep the focus on quality and the rest will follow. It’s not about evaluating what’s wrong with the present moment. It’s about striving together to make the present moment the best it can possibly be. Sometimes, even the smallest of steps can make the biggest of differences. “Kaizen” encourages us to talk about those possibilities together, in quality circles, and then to take the most promising of those steps to see where they might lead.

Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe your approach to leadership and life? Is quality job one for you? What would help you to make continuous improvement one of your core values? What would help you to express that value more fully? How could “good change” • “kaizen” • take shape today? What are three things you might do that would make things better for yourself, your family, and your organization?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. To learn more about LifeTrek Coaching programs, Click HereTop

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.


As pastors at our church, we are leading a counseling-type course titled “Spiritual Freedom Journey.” We have a battery of personal profile sheets and forms we have developed over the years. As a way of helping the 20-30 people in this 10-week course best express themselves we will be offering them a list of “Feeling Words.” Although your resource, Understanding Needs & Feelings, communicates much the same content as what we currently use, your format and breakdown of the content is very well executed. Would you please consider extending a (written) blessing to photocopy these forms to pass out to those taking the course? That would be such a gift. (Ed. Note: Permission granted! Many blessing to you both.) 


May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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