Exploring the Japanese concept ‘kaizen’, and how can it help you create a more solution-focused work environment

Unhealthy work environments can feel suffocating, whether it’s due to demanding workloads, rude or dismissive management, or pressure to work beyond scope, skillset, and hours. There can be a lack of communication and trust between employees and their management, and intimidating behaviours like bullying or discrimination can start to emerge.

All of this can take a huge toll on the mental health of individual employees, leading to burnout. I often see the effects of this in my therapy room: passionate and creative people who love their roles and want to do the best they can in their profession, but the ecosystem they work in is out of balance, making their working lives a misery.

When in these environments, it can feel like improving work culture would take some kind of miraculous overhaul.

But according to a Japanese concept called ‘kaizen’, which roughly translates as ‘change for the better’, it’s the smallest of steps that can lead to the biggest difference. The kaizen approach is implemented by multinational companies such as Toyota, Honda, and Canon. Unlike the traditional hierarchical model, where people at the top tell the people at the bottom what to do, which can lead to communication breaking down and increased pressure, the philosophy of kaizen is humanistic and engages all employees at all levels. Each person is given the same degree of responsibility and agency. The idea is that if all employees are involved in making small changes together, big changes can happen.

Various studies, such as one published in Human Relations in 2017, have been carried out on the effects of a kaizen approach in high stress workplaces such as hospitals, and results have found that by engaging staff at all levels there was a significant increase in employee satisfaction and productivity at work. Organisation improved, employees felt their needs were being better met, and they even felt more aware of their environment, and were better able to cope with the daily stresses.

It was a former client, Dennis*, who first introduced me to the concept of kaizen. When we met, he had a very gruelling job managing health and safety culture at a seaport. He would often tell me that the atmosphere was unbearably tense, with morale and mood low, it was difficult to get his colleagues to listen to him, they almost never engaged in health and safety rules. They complained about their workplace culture, workload, and conditions, but they also often said that “things would never change” and “that’s just the way it is”.

Dennis was determined that he could and would make that change happen. He tried various approaches before he came across the kaizen philosophy, and decided to trial it out in his team. He started by scheduling weekly meetings, where all employees could give input into the running of the port. It was an opportunity to discuss what could be improved as a team. Instead of just giving standard health and safety instructions and orders, he would take photos of areas that were unsafe, tidy, or broken, and asked his colleagues how they thought these areas could best be improved.

Through involving his colleagues in the decision-making process, and giving them the freedom to come up with solutions together, Dennis noticed a transformation not only in their responsiveness to health and safety protocol, but also their general attitude at work. They became more proactive and spontaneous in carrying out tasks, and the mood improved. Colleagues interacted with each other more, and the conversations became more light-hearted. He got consistent feedback from his team about how much happier they were, and how the sense of cooperation and team spirit became stronger.

We often believe that big change takes drastic action, but what Dennis’ story and kaizen shows us is that the biggest changes start with the smallest of steps, and even in the most trying circumstances, we can create a spark of hope through that first small action. By involving others in the process, we see the fruits of those steps more rapidly, and start creating an ecosystem of change where everyone involved can thrive.

*Name has been changed.