Kaizen and the Art of Innovation

What do you think of when you hear the word “innovation”? Do you imagine groundbreaking new products and services?  Brilliant, game-changing leaders who fly in the face of conventional wisdom with astounding results?

If you do, you’re not alone.  But, you may be thinking too big.

In his recent article in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki examines

Toyota’s practice of kaizen – a Japanese word meaning “continuous improvement.”  According to Surowiecki, we can all take a lesson in

Toyota’s dedication to productivity, problem solving, and identifying best practices.  While these innovations don’t always make for the most glamorous cars, they do create a working environment focused on getting things done, and done right.  The company may not be known for its cutting-edge designs, but, when it comes to the art of making improvements and leveraging teamwork, they are clearly at the top of their game.

Three of my favorite lessons from the Suroweicki’s article:

Find Inspiration Everywhere. Surowiecki points out that some of pay attention to industries that have almost nothing to do with what you do – you never know where the next great idea will come from.

Toyota’s innovative ideas were inspired in part by Henry Ford and the American supermarket.  Pay attention to what your competitors are doing, but also

Listen to Everyone. One of the most innovative aspects of Toyota is that the company encourages employees from the “C” suite to the assembly line floor to share ideas and identify pain points.  The result?  Many potentially huge problems are solved quickly and efficiently – before they become huge problems.  Additionally, employees aren’t afraid to speak up when they see room for improvement.

Think Small. Sure, we’d all like to hit on the next big thing, but what about tackling the small things first?  Toyota is constantly working to improve how things get done, and every small improvement makes the company more streamlined and efficient, which adds up to less wasted hours and increased productivity.

Think about your own company, or even your own department.  There’s probably room for improvement.  Talk to your coworkers, look at other industries, and brainstorm with your team.  You’re sure to find room for innovation.

Have other great examples of innovation in action?  I’d love to hear about them.


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