The 15 Joys of Kaizen

Twenty-five years ago, the first Lean tool book was published, Learning to See, a workbook about value stream mapping. This was the start of the mania for Lean tools. Many other Lean tool books soon followed.

Prior to that time, from the late 1970s to the early 2000s, the focus had been kaizen. This was the method by which one learned how to use various tools to understand the work; tools whose origin was Toyota-style industrial engineering. Kaizen is what created TPS and The Toyota Way, as well as nearly all of the popular Lean tools (value stream maps, A3 reports, gemba walks, coaching, kata, etc.).

Yet kaizen, for all of its strengths and importance, fell out of favor among business leaders and Lean professionals alike. They were aided by the big names in Lean who favored promoting Lean tools and associated books and training over kaizen. Be more careful to whom you listen to.

Lean tool mania displaced kaizen, and with it any notion of so-called Lean transformation because Lean tools do not substantially alter the status quo. Only kaizen does. Nearly every organization today uses Lean tools, but few have made the transition from archaic classical management to modern management systems similar to TPS (flow, JIT, etc.) and The Toyota Way (CI and RP, challenge, spirit of improvement, etc.).


In allowing kaizen to slip away, people forfeited the opportunity to learn the joy of kaizen — the joy of creative kaizen. At times, kaizen can be difficult and stretch people well beyond what they think they can do. But invariably, most kaizen team members reflect positively, if not joyfully, on their experience in part because it is so different than anything else they experienced and because they did things that they thought were impossible.

Here is what people lost when kaizen started to fall into the background some 20 years ago:

  • The joy of upgrading one’s critical thinking skills by orders of magnitude.
  • The joy of the challenge of advancing from capturing low-hanging fruit to developing a granular understanding of the work; from removing days or hours of waste to removing minutes, seconds, and fractions of a second of waste.
  • The joy of moving past rote problem-solving to creatively using one’s intelligence.
  • The joy of practicing kaizen with many constraints so that you are challenged to use your creativity to solve difficult problems.
  • The joy of creating material and information flows.
  • The joy of real teamwork and developing deeper human relationships.
  • The joy of making important changes quickly via “trystorming.”
  • The joy of creating, inventing, testing, and improving.
  • The joy of learning like you have never learned before.
  • The joy of growing and developing from a state of knowing to a state of wisdom.
  • The joy of bringing craftsmanship back into one’s work.
  • The joy of helping other people.
  • The joy of having satisfaction with one’s work.
  • The joy of having fun at work.
  • The joy of achievement; knowing you are truly contributing to the success of the company and the satisfaction of its customers.

These 15 joys are absent when organizations and Lean professionals do not practice kaizen. Sure, there may be a few joys in using a Lean tool, but it pales in comparison to the joy of kaizen.

To my dismay, people do not talk about the joy of kaizen. This is odd given the fun that people have during kaizen and their happiness or satisfaction after kaizen. And so, I have long made an effort to incorporate the joy of kaizen into my books (shown below), book chapters, blog posts, podcasts, videos, and my online course. What will you do to bring the joy of kaizen into your workplace?

Joy of Kaizen 1

Update, 31 January 2024

AI Chatbot Question: “Enjoyed your take on the Joy of Kaizen. Shouldn’t the concept be stressed at the outset of new employee onboarding? Have you encountered any companies that do this particularly well?”

AI Chatbot Reply: “I’m glad you enjoyed my take on the Joy of Kaizen. I absolutely agree that the concept of Kaizen should be introduced at the outset of new employee onboarding. It’s a powerful way to instill a culture of continuous improvement from the very beginning. As for companies that do this particularly well, I don’t have specific examples to share based on the information I have.”

Bob Emiliani Reply: Yes, the joy of kaizen should be expressed in detail at the start and at the end of kaizen. However, I do not know of any company that does that, probably because they don’t know how to do that, never thought to do that, or they view kaizen narrowly as “all business; no fun, no joy.” Companies begin with a dry rendering of what kaizen is (probably narrow in understanding and mistaken in many ways), and then send the people off to kaizen. I have incorporated the joy of kaizen in the books you see above, and especially in my online training course, Creative Kaizen — as well as a few other very important additions to the kaizen process. That’s why you should take my online course!

Update, 26 February 2024

Here is a wonderful infographic that Ahmed Radwan at KAIZEN Made Easy made for me based on this blog post:

Joys Screenshot
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