Discover the Real Meaning of Kaizen with Katie Anderson

18 | Discover the Real Meaning of Kaizen

Harness the Power of Kaizen

What do you think of when you hear the word “kaizen”?

An event? A process that you are working on improving? Something else?

The Japanese word “kaizen” is usually translated to mean “continuous improvement.” But there is a deeper meaning. It’s actually the lynchpin to creating a real culture of continuous improvement.

In this episode of Chain of Learning, I unpack the meaning of kaizen, not only as a method for process improvement but as a personal and organizational mindset for pursuing excellence.

Inspired by my recent keynote at the Shingo Institute conference, and insights from studying Japanese and leading my Japan Study Trips, I explore how “kaizen” goes deeper than mere process improvement. It’s about cultivating an environment where every individual feels empowered to contribute to change.

You’ll also hear the connection between Devo’s song “Whip It” and the word “kaizen” – and how you can both “whip it bad” and “whip it good” when it comes to continuous improvement.

Tune into this episode to discover how – “when a problem comes along”  – you and your team can all “whip it” to solve problems at all levels and create an enduring culture of improvement. And I bet you’ll be singing this song for weeks!

In this episode you’ll learn:

How kaizen represents the discipline to continuously pursue positive change within yourself and in your organization

Key strategies for identifying and correcting misalignments between your intentions and actions so that you can create a culture where continuous improvement is practiced by everyone

How you can shift from being the primary problem-solver to enabler who cultivates the skills necessary for overcoming challenges

Effective ways to embed the principles of kaizen into personal leadership habits, enhancing your impact as a leader or coach and setting an example for others to follow

Insights into how you can use a scientific problem-solving method for personal improvement as well as problem-solving

Warning – after listening to this podcast, you might get Devo’s song “Whip It” stuck in your head. I always do!

The Real Meaning of Kaizen

Kaizen is often translated into English as “continuous improvement”.

However, there is a deeper meaning that is revealed by how the word is written in Japanese. In kanji, the first symbol “kai” is made up of two sub-symbols representing “self” and “whip”. This refers to the self-discipline to start with ourselves to make change.

The kanji representing “zen” – translated directly as “good” – represent two symbols of “sheep” and “alter”, or put together to mean “sacrifice.”

The original essense of “kaizen” represents having the self-discipline to change ourselves –  to “whip” ourselves – for the greater good.

Note, if you want to see additional explanation about how the kanji symbols are written, check out my article The Real Meaning of Kaizen or watch this popular video on YouTube with the same name.

Listen Now to Chain of Learning!

Tune in now and learn how to harness the power of kaizen to catalyze positive change – within yourself, your organization, and the world.

Watch the episode

Watch the full episode on YouTube, where you can see me wear the Devo hat too (and check out more links below to see me at the Shingo Institute conference keynote).

And if you haven’t heard the Devo song “Whip It” before you can listen here.

Reflect and Take Action

Remember that when a problem comes along, you must “whip it” by addressing problems with a scientific mindset.

But leadership and coaching is not all about whipping the problems into shape yourself, it’s about creating an organization where everyone has the ability to “try to detect it” and to make sure that they’re able to have the support to move ahead with confidence.

Kaizen is about whipping yourself for good, whipping yourself with self-discipline to make change for the good, doing it with intention, for the better, and for the good. And it starts with us.

Your Challenge

I challenge you – to embody the true meaning of Kaizen by intentionally improving yourself for the better with self-discipline.

To help you with this, I have developed my change leader KATALYST Self-Assessment model that describes eight different competencies that you need to master to be an effective change leader.

Take the Katalyst™ Self-Assessment

If you haven’t already done so, download my free Change KATALYST Self-Assessment, complete it and then choose one area to work on over the next two weeks. And then practice with self-discipline towards solidifying these new actions as habits.

Practice with Intention

Practice with intention using the Study–Adjust–Plan–Do (SAPD) scientific method model that I referenced in the podcast (see links below for additional resources to help you). Use daily intention and reflection practices to work on solidifying these new habits and then support and grow these capabilities in others.

You can whip problems all you want, but if you don’t “whip it good” by starting first with the self-discipline to make change for the good, real sustainable change won’t happen in yourself or in your organization.

Whipping it at the Shingo Institute Conference!

Katie Anderson in Devo Hat

As promised in the podcast episode, here is the photo of me donning the Devo-inspired red hat that my 13-year old 3D printed! You can also see me wear it in the YouTube version of the podcast.

I wore this hat during my keynote at the Shingo Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida, where I also accepted the Shingo Publication Award for my book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn.

I fully embraced the 80’s theme of the conference by building my keynote talk around Devo’s song “Whip It”!

You can see some of the highlights from the conference in these videos below.

Official highlight video:

Katie’s highlights slideshow:

Important Links

Additional Links To Help Your Personal Improvement

Listen Now to Chain of Learning

Listen now on your favorite podcast players such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Audible. You can also listen to the audio of this episode on YouTube.


00:00 – Understanding the true meaning of Kaizen
03:44 – Psychological safety and leaders’ responses to mistakes are key for an operational excellence culture
08:54 – The real meaning of Kaizen is about self-discipline, continuous improvement, and making change for the greater good
11:21 – Creating an organization filled with problem solvers with Larry Culp
17:46 – How intention is about aligning behavior with impact and purpose
19:33 – How to use Plan-Do-Study-Adjust (PDCA) or Study-Adjust-Plan-Do (SAPD) cycles for personal improvement

Full Episode Transcript

Katie Anderson:
If you’re passionate about continuous improvement, you’ve likely heard the word kaizen. But what does it mean to you? In this episode, I’m going to reveal the true meaning of kaizen and how this knowledge will empower you to create even greater impact in your organization and in your life.

Welcome the Chain of Learning where the links of leadership and learning unite. This is your connection for actionable strategies and practices to empower you to build a people-centered learning culture, get results, and expand your impact so that you and your team can leave a lasting legacy. I’m your host and fellow learning enthusiast, Katie Anderson.

So, when you hear the Japanese word Kaizen, what do you think of? Is it an event, a process that you’re working on improving, or something else? The word kaizen is usually translated in English to mean continuous improvement, but there’s a deeper meaning which is actually the linchpin to creating a real culture of continuous improvement. So if you’re a continuous improvement practitioner or leader, knowing the real meaning behind the word kaizen is critical to your success. At the time this episode releases I am just back for my latest sold out Japan study trip tour and the Shingo conference in Orlando, where I keynoted and accepted the Shingo Publication Award for my book, “Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn” and the concept of Kaizen, or continuous improvement and how we create cultures of continuous improvement and operational excellence has been on my mind a lot.

Katie Anderson:
The Shingo conference had a 1980s theme, and they challenged all the keynote speakers to incorporate an eighties anthem as the anchor to our talk. Guess which song I chose? Well, if you’re watching the video on YouTube, you can see by what I’m wearing here because it didn’t take me more than a second to think about it. It was Devo’s whippet. But what does Devo’s Whip It and Kaizen have to do with each other? Well, in this episode, I’m going to show you how this connection between Kaizen and whipping it. You know, when all the problems come along, we gotta whip it, but it’s something more. And how I made this connection to the deeper and real meaning to Kaizen and how Diva’s song is going to be stuck in your head now whenever you hear the word Kaizen. I’ve talked in the past a lot about the word kaizen and how I discovered this deeper meaning when I was living in Japan almost a decade ago. It is one of the most viewed blog posts on my website,, and it is the most-watched video on my YouTube channel, because we all want to know what is the real meaning of Kaizen.

Katie Anderson:
So today I wanted to break it down here for you because it is so fundamental to your success as a change leader. So let’s get back into the devo song, because, you know when a problem comes along, you must whip it. But there are different ways that you can whip it, and this impacts the outcomes that you see in your organization. There’s good whipping and there’s bad whipping. So let’s start talking first about the good whipping. What happens in your organization when a problem comes along? Do you whip it? But what happens when something goes wrong or a mistake is made? Do you or others in your organization whip the people or blame them? Key to a culture of continuous improvement in innovation and engagement is fundamentally about whipping problems, but not blaming people. I talked a lot about this with Mark Graban back on episode 16 of Chain of Learning. So go and check it out.

Katie Anderson:
How this is fundamental to a concept of science, psychological safety, and the foundation for what we need if we’re going to create a culture of operational excellence and continuous improvement. So, picture this for a moment. You are just out of university or school, and you’ve started your first professional job, and you’ve been given one simple task. During an extended orientation program. You’re going to work in the back office, doing some office work, but your company really wants you to understand the value creation work of your organization. So there you are on the shop floor, and your one simple, easy task, no mistake should be happening, is to pour a can of paint and a can of solvent into a big vat. And as it get mixed up and the cars come down the line, yes, you’re in an automobile manufacturing plant. The cars come down the line, they spray the paint on the car, and it sticks.

Katie Anderson:
And this goes on for several weeks until one day when the manager from the paint store comes running in and says, stop the line. 100 cars need to be repainted. The paint is literally dripping off the cars and not sticking to it. And all eyes go on you. What would happen in your current organization or in your first job? Would you have been whipped for making a mistake? Would people have blamed you? Come over to you, maybe yelled at you? Perhaps you would have been even fired, because this is your probationary period for making such a stupid mistake that was leading to a lot of rework and money lost. Well, this is not what happened to Isao Yoshino when he was 22 when he had first joined Toyota Motor Corporation back in the 1960s. Instead, his managers did something else. They didn’t whip him.

Katie Anderson:
They came over instead and asked him about the process. What was the process that he took to pour the can of paint and the can of solvent into the VAT. And it became very clear when he was demonstrating that the cans looked nearly identical, and it would be so easy for a newcomer to make that mistake. So they didn’t blame him. They didn’t whip him. They worked on whipping the problem, and right then and there, they worked together to mistake-proof this so it wouldn’t happen again. But they did something even more important. And I’m going to come back to this at the end of the episode when we get into the deeper and real meaning of Kaizen and its connection about whipping it to solve problems and creating an organization where problem-solving and continuous improvement is part of the culture.

Katie Anderson:
So, we want to create an organization where we’re whipping the problem, not the people. This is better whipping about how do we improve and solve problems each and every day from small ideas that are going to truly continuously improve the process and the organization. A place where it’s safe to speak up and where it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s about having an organization where everyone has the ability to try to detect it and speak up when something’s going wrong. If we want to go back to the full devo song and the conditions that encourage people to go forward with innovative ideas, and they have the support to move ahead with confidence. But here’s the thing. It’s much more than that. It’s not just whipping the problems.

Katie Anderson:
It can’t just be us running around whipping all the problems that come up. Real culture change happens when you do something more, when you have the discipline to shift from being the problem solver, the problem whipper, to the leader or the coach that’s creating the conditions and the capability and confidence of everyone around you to whip the small problems that they see each and every day. And this gets to the fundamental and real meaning of the word kaizen. The Japanese word kaizen, written in kanji, is made up of two primary symbols. The word kaizen is traditionally translated to English, meaning continuous improvement. But there’s something more there on. The first symbol is actually made up of two sub-symbols, the first representing self and the second representing whip. This is is the self-whip, the self-discipline.

Katie Anderson:
And the second symbol, zen, is about sacrifice or change for the good. So, together it’s about having the self-discipline to make change for the good. This is the real meaning of kaizen. It starts with each of us as individuals, to be serious, to have the discipline, to make sure that we’re taking the actions and creating the habits that are then going to result in change for the good. So kaizen is not just something that you do to a process. It’s not an event. It’s something about how you are. It’s something that you practice each and every day.

Katie Anderson:
Kaizen is a mindset in a way of being. It’s about having the self-discipline to improve yourself for the better in service of the collective good. And through the way that we improve ourselves, we then improve processes, we help others improve, and we improve the world. Kaizen, or the concept of self-discipline, is about that decision or internal battle that you have for yourself, about how you show up, about who you are, and the actions you take. It’s about winning that conversation to make sure that you’re continuously improving yourself and doing things for the greater good. When I reflect on this concept of Kaizen, it really relates to what I learned about the core part of a leader’s purpose. I call this the leading-to-learn model, and I describe it in my book, “Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn.” It was something that Toyota leader Isao Yoshino told me way back when we first met, where he said that a leader’s role was essentially to set the direction or provide the challenge about what needed to be achieved, and then provide the support and create the conditions for people to be successful and grow and learn and solve problems.

Katie Anderson:
And then the third is about developing yourself. Developing yourself is that concept of Kaizen. It goes back to the importance that self-improvement is fundamental to our success as leaders, as coaches, as human beings. It’s about being serious about how we’re showing up and leading others. Back in episode 13, I talked about how I had to apply self discipline to change myself for the good so that I could really create the impact that I wanted to in my organization. Go back and take a listen to that story and think about are you the lion too? You’ll understand when you hear that story. But in essence, I discovered that I had a telling habit, and I knew that I had to start showing up in a different way if I really wanted to have better impact on my team and the executives that I was coaching as well. But with some intention and attention and self-discipline to practice, I was really able to make some quick changes and dramatically improve my impact as a leader and as a coach and honestly as a human being.

Katie Anderson:
This goes back to also what I talked about in episode 15, about being a lifelong learner. So make sure to go check out those episodes, because they give some really good tips about how you can be more serious about having that self-discipline to change yourself for the good. And one of the best examples I see today in executive leadership, in embodying this spirit of Kaizen, both the spirit of Kaizen, of having the self-discipline to change yourself to have the impact that you want. But also the Kaizen mindset of how we’re creating an organization filled with problem solvers is that of Larry Culp, who is the CEO of GE and now the CEO, since it’s been split apart into multiple companies. The CEO of GE Aviation and Larry Culp and I had the opportunity to talk on stage together at the AME conference in 2022. Larry had read my book that summer and actually had recommended it to everyone at GE as a great example of what it means to be a leader, to show up and create a culture of continuous improvement. And he invited me to facilitate a fireside chat with him on stage in front of a few thousand people at Ame. And one of my questions to Larry, it was about what were the things he had to change, what were the things he had to practice with self discipline to become a more effective and impactful leader.

Katie Anderson:
And he told me on stage then that he had to actually forget everything that he’d learned about leadership in his MBA program. And he had to really, really work on asking more questions and listening and learning to go and see or go to Gemba, the place where the work happens, and these really fundamental changes that he had to work on with discipline, to not always tell his ideas or give all the answers, but instead ask more questions and slow down to listen, and then to make sure that he wasn’t leading from his office. But in fact, going out to see was about how he was making those shifts and those habits. And that’s how he’s starting to build that culture across all of GE as well. It’s really exciting to see that the impact that he’s making as a leader who is practicing that self-discipline to change himself for the good, is growing and developing others in that same capacity as well. It’s that internal battle to move decisions to a habit, so that we no longer have to have that struggle within ourselves to make the choice. The behavior is what shows up first and foremost. I used to have a bit of a struggle between getting more sleep or getting some exercise.

Katie Anderson:
Both things that I really value, especially when I travel and travel internationally for a while, I had to really force myself to set that alarm and drag myself out of bed no matter what time zone, to get 30 minutes of exercise before going into a client session or a facilitated retreat, or even my own of my Japan study trips. It is really hard, but now it’s not so hard, I automatically set that alarm. And I have found that getting that exercise actually helps me have the energy that I want and move forward. So, actually, the challenge is making the choice to sleep in rather than to go exercise. We can build that muscle with the self-discipline to make the actions that we want to show up to be the ones that come forward first. It can be that way too, with your behaviors of how you’re showing up at work and how you’re interacting with people as well. And I want to go back to the paint story that I opened up this episode with about the bad whipping, where we don’t want to be blaming the people, but we want to be looking at process. And when I was talking with Mister Yoshino and this story emerged that he actually hadn’t thought of in almost 40 years, he was laughing in reflection, sort of incredulous that his managers didn’t blame him.

Katie Anderson:
And he admits they probably were frustrated. Like their initial human response was, ah. And they probably had that desire to whip him, get angry at him, but they had the self-discipline not to do that. They had created the habits for themselves not to show up that way. And guess what? They did something even more, even more impactful and transformational, if you think about this, from an organizational culture. They thanked him for making that mistake. Mister Yoshino’s managers thanked him for making the mistake that resulted in 100 cars having to be repainted. And they said to him, you highlighted that we had not set up the working conditions for you to be successful.

Katie Anderson:
So thank you for bringing that problem forward, because now we can make some changes and make sure that never happens again. Thank you for making that mistake. Mind blown when I heard that, and it’s so powerful. And I share that story so many times. I shared that at my keynote at the Shingo conference. I’ve shared it around the world. And this is so different. What would happen in your organization? Do leaders thank you or thank other people for making mistakes? That is true.

Katie Anderson:
Spirit of Kaizen. The self-discipline, not to have the bad whipping, but to have the good whipping and the self-discipline to show up, to really create and foster an environment where it’s safe to fail and make mistakes, and all work together to whip those problems so that we make sure they never happen again. All this comes down to your intention, having the discipline aligned with your purpose, and the impact you want. Intention, if you’ve been following me for a long time, you know, is one of my most favorite words and has become a motto of mine. When I moved to Japan, I also was fascinated by all the different types of kanji script and how the words were constructed. And the word intention was on my business card. And the two symbols that make up the word intention in Japanese, shiko, come from one set of symbols that actually is a standalone word. That is kokorozashi, but it’s samurai in heart or inner spirit, the strength of your heart and who you are, and then a second symbol that means compass or direction.

Katie Anderson:
So, intention is what’s your purpose? What’s the impact you want to have? Who do you want to be? And then are your behaviors and actions aligned in that direction? So we have to have the self-discipline to make sure that our behaviors are aligned with the impact that we really want to have. That’s what happened with me and my discovery that I needed to break the telling habit and I had to show up differently with intention and discipline to make some different choices and how I was showing up. That’s what Larry Culp has shared that he’s been doing over the course of his career, of unlearning what he learned about leadership and asking more questions and listening and going to the place the work happens. And this is the same thing that happened with Mister Yoshino’s managers when they came and they thanked him for making that mistake and not blaming him. So how can you do this? How can you embody the true spirit of Kaizen and create this culture of continuous improvement? Well, there are three s words that might be able to help you, and I shared this at the Shigeo conference. The first is spark. You need a spark, spark to understand the disconnect with your intentions. You need the spark to decide to make some change, that aha moment.

Katie Anderson:
And then you need to solidify new habits, practice with discipline to make changes. Because we never extinguish old habits. We just replace them with stronger ones. So we really need to then choose to have that self-discipline to really embody Kaizen and practice each and every day to build up those habits and that reaction that is going to be more aligned with the impact that we want to have or who we are. You can use the same plan do study, adjust cycle, or plan do check act cycle that we use for process improvement on yourself. And I’m going to put some links in the complete show notes for some resources that will help you along this Dot and I actually like to call the cycle since it is a continuous improvement cycle. Instead of plan do, study adjust or PD SA or plan do check Act PDCA.

Katie Anderson:
I like to call it study adjust, plan do because we forget to do the studying part. We just start doing doing and then we’re not necessarily making sure that we’re learning and making improvements. So start with the studying. Understand what are your current habits and what impact are they having. Have that spark of feedback and thinking, I need to make a change and then adjust. Identify what is better look like for you and then make a plan for what you’re going to practice and then have the self discipline to actually do that in practice and then come back and reflect on how you did. So set your intention for your practice and reflect. The third s is support.

Katie Anderson:
So once you’ve started to solidify your do habits, how can you help support others to grow? I like to talk about this concept of support is the right amount of tension between providing a challenge and providing support. If you picture someone coming up a mountain and you have the leader at the top and a mountain rope connected to the other people behind them, you need to have the right amount of tension where you’re neither like dragging people up, pulling them up, nor where they’re falling backwards and, you know, maybe about to fall down the mountain. We have to have that right amount of tension where people are working but moving up the mountain. And this requires you to have discipline to not rescue them, but not to solve all the problems for them. This can be really hard. This is where the Kaizen comes in as well, about how you can provide really effective support, support. So remember, spark of what you need to be improving. Solidify those new habits and then support and help grow and develop others so they can do the same.

Katie Anderson:
So I want to leave you with this. Remember that when a problem comes along, you must whip it by addressing problems with scientific mindset. But leadership and coaching is not all about whipping the problems into shape yourself. It’s about creating organization where everyone has the ability to try to detect it and to make sure that they’re able to have the support to move ahead with confidence. Kaizen is about whipping yourself for good, whipping yourself with self-discipline to make change for the good, doing it with intention, for the better, and for the good. And it starts with us. I want to challenge you with one thing as you leave this episode that you want to work on and embody the true meaning of Kaizen about intentionally improving yourself for the better with self discipline. To help you with this, I have my change leader Katalyst self assessment model that describes eight different competencies that you need to master to be a really effective change leader.

Katie Anderson:
So, if you haven’t already done so, go download the free Katalyst, k-a-t-a-l-y-s-t with a “K” or check out the links in the complete episode show notes. Go and do that assessment, and then choose one thing. So get that spark. Choose the one area or the one thing that you’re going to work on over the next two weeks and then work towards solidifying these new actions as habits. Practice with intention and reflection. Use the study adjust plan, do model, use those daily intention and reflection practices to work on solidifying these new habits and then support and grow these capabilities in others. You can whip it all you want, but if you don’t whip it good by starting with improving yourself first with the self discipline to make change for the good, real, sustainable change won’t happen in yourself or in your organization.

Katie Anderson:
I’d love to hear how this goes for you, so find me on LinkedIn or send me an email. All my info is on my website, and if you want to see the 3d printed Devo hat that my 13-year-old made for me, that I wore during my keynote at the Shingo conference, and that I wore for parts of this podcast episode recording, you can go to the full video of this episode on my YouTube channel or go check out photos on the episode, and I’ve also linked to a bunch of other resources that can help you on your quest to practice the real meaning of Kaizen and improve yourself. Remember, the real meaning of Kaizen is about self-whip, self-discipline. Change yourself for the good, and in doing so, you’ll build a chain of learning and support others to grow as well. It’s how, together we can make the world a better place. If you want others to know the real meaning of Kaizen two, please share this episode with your colleagues and friends, and be sure to follow and subscribe to Chain of Learning now so you never miss a future episode. Thanks for being a link in my chain of learning today.

Katie Anderson:
I’ll see you next time. Be sure to whip it good.

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