Kaizen and the Japanese Automakers

Recently there has been a lot of news about the big three American automakers going bankrupt. The CEOs of the American automakers show up in Washington, go before Congress, and ask for billions of dollars. Their argument is that if they go bankrupt, its bad for American workers.

It’s true that nobody wants the American automakers to go bankrupt. But it’s also true that the CEOs are responsible for making the company succeed, not for asking the government for a handout. The CEOs, like most people, blame the credit markets, the economy, the stock market, the weather, and anything else they can think of.

What about the Japanese automakers? Do they go to Congress asking for money? No. It’s true that they are not making as much money as before, and in Toyota’s case, losing money for the first time in 70 years. However, they don’t go before any Congress asking for money, because they are not on the brink of bankruptcy.

The Miracle of Small Steps

How is this possible? Are the Japanese smarter than Americans? Do they have better technology? Do they have more business schools? I suggest the answer to these questions is no. But they do employ one strategy that has made a big difference: Kaizen.

Kaizen is the ancient Asian philosophy of tiny, incremental improvement. Kaizen is the idea that if you take a small step every day, you can travel across the world. This idea is quite different from the way Americans think. Americans love revolutions and revolutionary ideas.

There’s nothing wrong with revolutionary ideas. Yet, they have their limitations. For day-to-day business and year-to-year competition, small, incremental, kaizen improvements work great. A powerful reason that Japanese automakers have come to dominate the auto industry is through the strategy of kaizen.

What’s great about kaizen is that we can use it in our lives too. We can take a small step towards anywhere that we want to go. Maybe it’s eating an apple to improve our health. Or, it could be taking the stairs instead of the elevator. What about reading for 20 minutes instead of watching TV?

Each small step leads to another. These steps develop into our habits. What seems like a small, inconsequential action can lead us to where we want to go. The question is, are we willing to take that first small step?

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