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Kaizen is the Japanese word meaning continued, gradual improvement -- as compared with breakthroughs and revolutions; usually used in a business context.

Historically, the term has become important because certain Western commentators use it in the context of saying things like: The Japanese are good at kaizen; that is gradual improvement of a technology, but no good at innovation and breathroughs. For example, the Japanese did not invent video cameras (a breakthrough), but once the grasped the idea, they refined it, made it better, smaller, faster, cheaper (this is kaizen).

For me, this has slightly racist overtones; besides the fact that it's also wrong. The Japanese did come up with the idea for the original Walkman, for instance, and as well as that have been doing kaizen on them for 30 years, and they're still getting smaller, faster, cheaper. It's usually used by older Americans to explain why they're losing so much high-tech industry to Japan. It suits the psyche of many to say the equivalent of "we do all the hard work, and the Japanese enjoy the fruits of our labour".

A business philosophy, originating from Japan. It has been variously translated as 'the gradual elimination of all waste' or 'continuous, incremental improvement'. Basically, kaizen is the belief that you do not need to run to win the race, you can instead just take small steps, constantly. A bit like the hare and the tortoise.

Within the business world, this usually means that any idea for improving the production mechanism, no matter how small, is implemented. Kaizen also aims to empower the workers, mainly by allowing them to feel they are contributing to the company as a whole. One of the most famous examples of kaizen in action comes from the Toyota car company. There was a guy on the production line, who's job was to paint the little cigarette on the car's cigarette lighter. He pointed out to management that everyone knew it was a cigarette lighter, so the picture was unnecessary. They stopped painting that little icon, and managed to save millions over the year. No one seems to know whether the guy who suggested it was found a new job...

Outside of the business world, kaizen can be applied to everyday life too. Small improvements, constantly. So, don't aim to wake up tomorrow and be able to run a marathon. Instead, aim to go for a brisk walk tomorrow, and a short jog the day after, and a bit of a run the day after that, and aim to be running that marathon within a year. Or, if you want to change the world and make it a better place, don't give up your day job straight away, but start by taking a bus instead of your car, or recycling your newspapers. You get the idea.

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