Applying the Concept of Kaizen To Personal Finance

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Kaizen is a a Japanese philosophy that focuses on continuous, gradual improvements in all areas of life. A popular example is that of Toyota Motors, where any worker can stop the entire factory line if they see an abnormality and worker suggestions are welcomed and regularly implemented. The role of kaizen in Toyota’s success is discussed in detail within this New Yorker article “Open Secret of Success“:

…Toyota’s approach: defining innovation as an incremental process, in which the goal is not to make huge, sudden leaps but, rather, to make things better on a daily basis. […] Most of these ideas are small—making parts on a shelf easier to reach, say—and not all of them work. But cumulatively, every day, Toyota knows a little more, and does things a little better, than it did the day before.

The parallels to personal finance are relatively obvious but I think it is still easy to underestimate the power of such small, continuous, improvements.

Starting a New Business
Many of us may have ideas about starting up a new business (side or full-time), or even consider a career change. But the task can be daunting, so we put it off. But taking small steps towards such a goal are relatively easy. Spend a little time regularly making contacts, read and learn new skills while sitting at a cafe, or simply making your fuzzy daydreams a little sharper. It doesn’t even have to be daily.

Changing Your Spending Habits
Habits are by definition almost subconscious behaviors, and very hard to break. This New York Times article “Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?” explores why using kaizen instead may be better suited to changing our habits as opposed to other more aggressive methods:

“Whenever we initiate change, even a positive one, we activate fear in our emotional brain,” Ms. Ryan notes in her book. “If the fear is big enough, the fight-or-flight response will go off and we’ll run from what we’re trying to do. The small steps in kaizen don’t set off fight or flight, but rather keep us in the thinking brain, where we have access to our creativity and playfulness.”

If you want to start a budget, why not tracking your spending in just one category, like dining out?

Taking it another step further, instead of just saying “I need to eat out less”, why not ask why you order out so much. For us, often times it is simply because we are tired and there is nothing easy to cook in the fridge. So I have started to keep a better stocked pantry and also make a regular schedule where I buy a small amount of “standard” fresh vegetables which are easy to incorporate. Each time I find a good recipe that uses only what is in my pantry, I write it down, so I slowly accumulate our own custom lazy-proof cookbook.

Kaizen Is All About You
These are just a few examples, and is kind of how I like to think of this blog. There are so many complex topics that are impossible to learn all at once, from investing to insurance to taxes. Every day I read and skim a lot of information, in the hopes of gleaming something a little useful that can help me get a little closer to leaving the rat race. It may just seem like little nothings, but when you add it all up together I know it has made a huge difference in our financial lives. But what may strike a chord in me might not apply to others, so it’s all about taking what works for you and applying it.

So remember, as long as you learn or implement something a little new each day, you should be happy!

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  1. Great little piece, the Japanese sure have some great models developed for living life and I think Kaizen can ultimately change lives for the better financially/emotionally/mentally, what have you. I will try and implement some of this in my daily life and try to keep it more to my attention. Thanks.

  2. What a great piece. I agree that things cannot be done all at once and it takes even a small change, regardless of the amount, everyday to be able to change one’s habits. When people change the little things, they will see that this impacts everything else and may lead to amazing things later on.

  3. Good article, but the phrase is “strike a chord.”

  4. Japanese sure stolen a lot of concepts/words from China back in the days and this is one of them. So when others talk about how China pirates stuff from other countries, think about what Japan did many years ago..

  5. Great post Jonathan! In regards to starting a business, your post resonated especially well with me. I get fired up about internet business in particular and am constantly trying to get others fired up around me — to try something — just START.

    I think part of what’s daunting is that people think everything has to be perfect before you can take the first step. What we soon realize is that a thousand steps later things still aren’t perfect — but we’ve gotten somewhere.

  6. Care to share your lazy-proof cookbook recipes?? 🙂

  7. FYI:
    In chinese, the spelling is exactly the same. And the pronunciation is “Gai Shan”.

  8. Really great post. Lazy proof recipes … I should do that.

  9. Top notch post! As an Industrial Engineer, we practice Kaizen everyday on the shop floor just as Toyota does. It is true that Toyota is very bureaucratic, however, that structure still fosters a culture of innovation and continuous improvement. Everyone, from the line workers to the CEO is encouraged to submit improvement ideas. In a book on the Toyota Production System, I read that one of the VPs of Engineering actually took a cross country road trip in a Sienna to find improvement opportunities. One opportunity was when crossing a bridge in windy conditions, the Sienna would drift due to the wind. As soon as the trip was over, the VP had the design team change the side body to be more aerodynamic. How awesome is that?!

  10. southcampus says

    great post. I will start to incorporate this into my daily life and the one about being free and starting a business and how daunting that can be, you are all absoulutely right. If not now, then when!

  11. “chord”, that makes sense. See, another small improvement in my knowledge!

  12. LarrysHW says

    It is also a great way to minimize risk. Incremental change by definition limits your exposure to extreme consequences (both good and bad) while at the same time chipping away at inefficiencies. In the end you arrive at the desired goal without having had to risk everything to reach there. Needless to say your image isn’t as romanticized a la Mr.Jobs, but remember that he faced the lowest of lows before clawing his way to his current messianic status.

  13. "Mo" Money says

    Good Post. I like the ideas presented.

  14. I’ve always interpreted it sort of as “struck a resonance,” so if something “strikes a chord” with me, it resonates with me. With that interpretation, chord makes sense. I’ve been told that the phrase originally had a musical context, but I don’t really know for sure if that is true.

  15. Recovering English Major says

    Great post, but you want to be “gleaning” vs. “gleaming” new ideas. “Gleaning” refers to gathering the little pieces of usable crops that are left after the bulk of the crop has been harvested. 🙂

  16. Over the weekend I spent one hour and organized a closet that contains all of our paper products. Everytime I used to go in there, everything would fall out, and then I would have to move a few things to get to what I wanted. It was almost stressful contemplating opening the door.

    What a difference to see all the stuff neatly arranged and easily accessible. I definitely feel the power of this small change. Great Post (and how timely too)!

  17. Hi, just wanted to say i really liked this post. 🙂 great job! glad I subscribe to your feed 🙂


  18. Great Post!

  19. I’m a bit late to this party, but I wrote a post on my blog about habits titled “One Habit at a Time.” It really is true – I’ve finally realized that I can only tackle one thing at a time, incrementally, to override the “fight or flight” response that the author Ryan talks about. I usually have to write things down to remind myself to SLOOOW down and just remember my ONE habit that day. Of course, if I do other things as a result of doing my one habit, fine, but I’m not obligated. I think my primitive brain must get tricked by this, because usually it works.

    In other words, I end up getting MORE done by trying to do LESS, as long as the less I’m trying to do is my ONE habit I’m trying to establish. Some habits I’ve actually gotten done – regular, daily flossing, drinking more water, picking up my clothes every evening before I go to bed, wearing my seatbelt (yes, I know that one’s required, but believe me… I resisted it for all sorts of dumb reasons – I had to just look at it as a habit that I needed to establish, then I could get over myself and not have to think of it again).

    Thanks again for the post and link to the NY Times article.


  20. Really Good Advise ! Thanks!
    I think i will apply in my own life the kaizen and also in my business!

  21. @Jonathan:

    This is a great post and one of the first ones we are summarizing for our new service called the The Money mail. The Money Mail is a daily summary of the best posts in personal finance. I have also sent you an email explaining about the site. Please let me know your feedback

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