A philosophical approach to innovation

I went out to a sushi dinner with a close friend the other day, and after we were done raving about the freshness and deliciousness of the food, our conversation turned to its visual appeal. We both agreed that the taste of the dish was reflected in its presentation – the roll as a whole, as well as the individual pieces – were arranged so harmoniously, with just the right proportions of ingredients, creating the perfect balance. And then we wondered how the dish might have come about. How did the Japanese conceptualize and create this perfect balance of flavors and color and manage to package it all in a little bite-sized morsel?

My friend was of the opinion that the elegance and aesthetic sophistication of the Japanese was expressed in everything, including food, and so the design was inevitably perfect. I argued that it must have taken time and many minor iterations and improvements to come up with the sushi that we know today. After all, Japan is the place of origin for the concept of Kaizen, a philosophical yet business-managerial term that can be roughly translated as “continuous improvement.” And in this philosophy of Kaizen, perfection is a nebulous thing – something you strive towards constantly, but not necessarily something that can be achieved.

Kaizen comes from the Japanese “Kai” (change, or ‘to correct’) and “Zen” (good). It can be considered both a philosophy of being and a strategy for innovation, especially within an organization. It takes the idea of constant, incremental improvement and applies them to manufacturing, engineering and business management processes. It isn’t limited to organizations and businesses by any means, although that use is most well known, and can be applied within any facet of life. It is about being able to see areas where you could be better – more efficient, more effective, less wasteful – and making small changes to get there. An article I read on the subject said:

Kaizen is based on making changes anywhere that improvements can be made. Western philosophy may be summarized as, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Kaizen philosophy is to “do it better, make it better, improve it even if it isn’t broken, because if we don’t, we can’t compete with those who do.”

To me, it seems that that initial step – of being able to admit that things aren’t perfect – is the most crucial. Most organizations are unwilling to admit, even to themselves, that they could be wrong, and it seems like that pride is often the foremost and greatest obstacle to innovation. And after that, setting out to look for minor tweaks that can make a major impact is the next hard-to-achieve step, since it’s always easier to point out what’s wrong than it is to suggest a way to fix it, particularly when that way needs to be resource efficient. So in many ways it serves as a way in which we can humble ourselves, humanize ourselves, and in so doing, become better than we are in the present. It isn’t about finding fault and placing blame, but about discovering opportunities to make life better, simpler and less wasteful.

Another beautiful aspect of Kaizen, in the organizational context, is that it is inclusive – it invites suggestions for improvement from employees across hierarchies, from the janitorial staff to the CEO. In this way, it can be incredibly successful in not only redesigning existing systems and processes to be more effective, but also in engendering more trust and greater inclusion and participation across all levels and hierarchies. An excellent example of the effectiveness of Kaizen can found in this anecdote from the automobile manufacturer, Toyota, on how they first began incorporating Kaizen in their organization:

During the exciting days of learning about and implementing the Toyota System I asked one of our youngest workers – Lukas, what he would change in our production plant if he owned it. His reply was: “I’ve never thought about it.” But he started looking around and thinking about it. I know this because a few days later he shared his first idea of a small but significant improvement. About once a month our cars were loaded on a container and shipped out. Our forklift would lift three cars held together by specially designed metal construction, with 3 workers on each side making sure the cars were safe. The most dangerous part was the place between the gate of our building and the container which was standing outside. Lukas stated the obvious: “The reason why seven people are needed to carry the cars out of the building instead of just one instead of one is because of that step and the bad quality pavement right outside. If we fix it – only the forklift operator will be needed to take the cars out of the building.”

We fixed the problem (with very low costs) and from then on our monthly shipments were less costly and, who knows – we might have avoided some nasty accident which we were just asking for with the uneven pavement . This is how the era of Kaizen began in our company.

Kaizen, now recognized and implemented by a host of companies around the world, seems to me an excellent way of looking at the world around us – full of possibilities and opportunities for betterment. I don’t know if there are many examples of Kaizen in Indian firms, and I wonder if in fact this would work in some of our older companies with their extreme hierarchies and classist structures. Also, would it be possible for public and social sector organizations to also start incorporating such philosophies in their functioning? Your thoughts welcome.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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