Kaizen means improvement, or literally, good change. Identified by author Masaaki Imai as “the key to Japanese competitive success,” kaizen is the philosophy undergirding continuous improvement at every level of the organization, and involving all personnel. As a philosophy, kaizen is the post-World War II driving force behind the success of a host of Japanese companies, led most notably by Toyota.
Kaizen, as an organizational philosophy, was introduced to Japan through several American post-World War II initiatives designed to help war torn Japan recover and flourish. W. Edwards Deming received an award from the Emperor of Japan for his involvement in developing and implementing kaizen. The W. Edwards Deming Institute remains a significant influence in continuous improvement, including in the promotion of the basic kaizen cycle (PDSA cycle) of plan, do, study, act:
“The cycle begins with the Plan step. This involves identifying a goal or purpose, formulating a theory, defining success metrics and putting a plan into action. These activities are followed by the Do step, in which the components of the plan are online slots implemented, such as making a product. Next comes the Study step, where outcomes are monitored to test the validity of the plan for signs of progress and success, or problems and areas for improvement. The Act step closes the cycle, integrating the learning generated by the entire process, which can be used to adjust the goal, change methods or even reformulate a theory altogether. These four steps are repeated over and over as part of a never-ending cycle of continual improvement.”
Especially creditable to Toyota’s success, kaizen’s popularity increased, and kaizen has since been implemented by noted companies like Ford, Great Western Bank, Lockheed Martin, along with an innumerable host of companies who have likewise benefited from the PDSA cycle.
Kaizen is clearly a positive change agent. But what is most interesting to this writer is how the philosophies of kaizen coincide markedly with quite a few Biblical principles. The similarities show that there is enough Biblical data to infer a Biblical model for continuous improvement (hereafter, BCI) – a model that can be very effective.
Principle #1: Improvement Requires Humility, Collaboration and Accountability
Kaizen as a philosophy began with collaboration. General MacArthur invited some American quality control experts to help the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation resolve a pervading wrong-number problem. “The American experts told NTT management that the only solution was to apply quality control…” Hajime Karatsu (Technical Advisor to Matsushita Electric Industrial), aiding the NTT, recounts, “In our pride, we told them that we were applying quality control at NTT the Japanese way. But when they asked to see our control charts, we didn’t even know what a control chart was.” What the NTT lacked was another set of eyes – an external accountability – to help them understand deficiencies and how to resolve them.
“A wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel” (Prov 1:5). “Where there is no guidance the people fall, but in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Prov 11:14). “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed” (Prov 15:22). “Listen to counsel and accept discipline, that you may be wise the rest of your days” (Prov 19:20). “For by wise guidance you will wage war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Prov 24:6). Solomon’s words underscore the importance of humility, collaboration, and accountability if plans are to succeed.
Even within the church-age economy (recorded in the New Testament), success is never achieved individually, for “even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ…For the body is not one member, but many… If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:12,14-27).
The author of Hebrews extols the necessity and advantage of collaboration: “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near“ (Heb 10:24-25). In these words is embedded the BCI basis for collaboration and its advantage. There is a day drawing near. This eschatological reference draws the reader’s attention to a substantial distinction between kaizen and BCI: whereas kaizen is a vehicle designed for continually achieving right outcomes in diverse contexts, BCI is the outcome. Within a Biblical worldview, relationship-growth and maturing are not simply desired outcomes. Rather they are the stuff of everyday life, and everyday life should not be disjointed from the conclusion of it. The destination is the journey, as they say. In the words of one popular song,
Just a closer walk with Thee
Grant it Jesus, is my plea
Daily walking close to Thee
Let it be dear Lord, let it be.
Improvement requires humility, collaboration, and accountability. Further, in BCI, improvement is more than becoming better at processes, it is becoming better.
 Masaaki Imai, Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success (New York: McGraw Hill, 1986), xxix.
 The Deming Institute, “The Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) Cycle,” at https://www.deming.org/theman/theories/pdsacycle.
 Imai, 10.
 “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” traditional gospel song, writer unknown.