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  • Writer's pictureMike Sonneveldt

The Power of Kaizen   

a hand gripping a 20 lb dumbell.

Ever found yourself falling down a rabbit hole online?  

Is the sky blue?  

Of course. We all have. Our first reaction might be to believe that falling down a rabbit hole means coming across crazy conspiracy theories, like Elvis shot JFK or alien lizard people wrote Shakespeare.  

Thankfully, I will not be reporting to you about Hitler still being alive in Argentina or a base on the dark side of the moon. My rabbit hole goes deep into the labyrinth of helpful tips, tricks, and outlooks on life. 

While doing research for Become Forged, I rediscovered an idea that I found extremely helpful when working towards self-improvement (or personal development if you don't want to sound like a Tony Robbins infomercial). My research naturally began to modify the algorithms of my internet browser, which likes to pop up articles on the home page. Pretty soon, a wide selection of ideas and philosophies similar to what i wanted inundated my screen.

So, I thought, in the spirit of writing what may help you become a more powerful Christian, contributing member to society, or at least a little better at making your bed; that I would share with you what I've found and come across. 

Self-Improvement Bonanza 

If you're a perfectionist, this article is for you. If you feel like you're a lazy slob and need some help getting out of the muck, then this is also for you. Sometimes, all we need is a little nudge in the right direction to improve our day-to-day lives. 

Many of us get nervous about such articles because we feel as though we're either a) insulting God's creation by trying to “self-improve”, b) buying a scam-style philosophy or some psychobabble claptrap, or c) about to pick up something we'll fail at in a matter of days. 

To say that because we are a creation of God we need no improvement is to say that we are not sinful. Such a comment lacks the humility of saying, “Lord, I'm not where I know I could be, but I'm going to continue to focus each day on becoming more of what you meant me to be.” 

Scam-style philosophies are everywhere, but that doesn't mean that every idea or concept is a scam. The following method has been in practice for centuries and has a long history of success in helping people improve. 

Third, our success or failure cannot be used as a judgment. When we approach a new habit or behavior, it is an absolute certainty that we will fail at some point. Your job is to get back up and keep trying. Binding together a string of successes amidst failures is what sets you apart from the people who truly failed by giving up.  

So, take on these methods that I've been researching and implementing in some way, and let me know if any of them worked for you. 


Despite the Japanese-sounding name, this idea didn't originate in Japan. However, they did end up naming it. 

During the Depression, American businesses and the government set out to change their business management methodology. Instead of seeking out major, revolutionary inventions and changing the entire landscape, American factories instituted a mission of small, continuous improvements. This idea caught on so well that quality and craftsmanship defined American products. Especially military equipment. 

Since materials and money were hard to come by both during the Depression and World War II, the best way to become a better business meant looking within, not outside. Small improvements created new levels of efficiency and compounded to create higher levels of quality, craftsmanship, reliability, and durability.  

After World War II, the concept was taught to Japanese businesses in an American mission to rebuild the Japanese economy. Japanese companies latched onto the idea (doesn't it sound very Japanese to the core?) and in fact, surpassed American businesses in the 70s and 80s. In case you're too young to remember: Japanese cars and electronics had a horrible reputation for being utter crap. But as American businesses were tempted and enticed back into looking for the next “radical innovation”, the Japanese surpassed them with what the US had taught them. American companies floundered when competing against the suddenly reliable, durable, high-quality products coming out of the former enemy nation. 


Japan and Kaizen 

Japan named it Kaizen, which Kai means change, and Zen means good. The literal meaning is "change for the better"; and it truly is. The idea is that tons of small improvements can be made. As each one is ferreted out and improved, the whole becomes better and better. 

This idea was proven by the cycling team in Great Britain. Known for being utter garbage in competition over the decades, British cycling hired a new performance director, in 2003, by the name of Dave Brailsford. His approach was very Kaizen. In 110 years, the team had never won a Tour de France, had only one gold medal, and even sponsors were afraid for the team to use their equipment. Brailsford began with small little changes. Instead of switching out all the athletes, or upending every part of their training, he looked at the parts no one else might have thought of. 

They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable. They used electrically heated shorts to keep the muscles of the riders at the perfect temperature. They tested fabrics and picked indoor racing suits, which were lighter and more aerodynamic. The team tried out massage gels to help recovery. The team selected the perfect mattress and pillow for each rider. They even painted the interior of the team truck white to spot dust or contaminants that might harm and degrade the bikes.  

In 2008, Great Britain won 60 percent of the gold medals available in road and track cycling. In 2012, they set nine Olympic records and seven world records. Also in 2012, Bradley Wiggins won the Tour De France. In 2013, 

Chris Froome won and continued to win in 2015, 2016, and 2017. 

From 2007 to 2017, Britain won 178 world championships, 66 Olympic and Paralympic gold medals, and 5 Tour de France victories. 


John D. Rockefeller and the 39 Drops 

One of my favorite examples of Kaizen's success is found in a story about John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil. In the 1870s, he was walking the floor of one of his factories (as he was apt to do) where kerosene was put in 5-gallon cans. At one station, the cans were soldered to seal the lid. He asked the man working the station how many drops of solder were used. The man responded, “40.” 

Rockefeller thought for a second and asked, “Have you ever tried 38?” The man shook his head no. So, Rockefeller asked him to try some cans and see what happened. They found that 38 drops of solder were too weak and some of the cans leaked. However, at 39 drops, the cans remained stout and sealed. 

The company implemented the change, and according to Rockefeller's reporting, the company saved 2,500 dollars that first year. In 2022, that would be roughly $56,000! Rockefeller reported that over the coming years, the savings were worth hundreds of thousands of the 1870s! 

I love this story because it speaks to Rockefeller's ability to sense out problems or improvements that nobody else might have thought through. He was known for rectifying financial mistakes worth a few cents...whether for or against his company. Even as president of a global company, he kept a keen eye on all of the accounting and was extremely observant of problems others might not notice. 


Applying Kaizen 

We can do this too, but we must train ourselves to do so. In using the Kaizen method, a person begins to look at the smallest, easiest changes they can make, and perfect those areas. Imagine a Japanese samurai practicing a single stroke of the sword 10,000 times. Or a famous violinist practicing for 10,000 hours, and always going back to the smallest errors on her scales.  

For a more practical application, you could look at your finances. The wife and I have been focusing tightly on the budget, and I've found that this is a great way to begin taking control of the tiny little leaks in our wallets. Oftentimes, we think we have to wipe the slate clean of all spending, and that will save us. The problem is, that we never stop to think about all those little moments spent here and there, which add up extremely quickly. 

The other day, I realized I left coffee in the coffee pot. Most times, I heat another cup the next day, but some days there is some leftover coffee that gets thrown out. Instead of brewing 6 cups (which is 2 ½ for me) I could begin brewing 4 or 5 cups and focus on finishing what is in the pot by the next day. As well, I could always take a day or two and not drink coffee. Considering I go through a container in about 2 months, stretching that to double it would save me 25-30 bucks every couple of months. You may think that's not much, but simply by slowing down my coffee intake, I can save perhaps 100 dollars in a year. 

In the realm of food, I love dressings and sauces. I plow through them. Especially if it's buffalo sauce and I have some blue cheese crumbles sitting around. But what if I decided to slow my intake down by being more measured in how much I put on a meal at a time? You may say, “That only saves you, what, 5 bucks?” But that's five dollars that I've now saved, and the habit spreads to everything. In our economy, being as efficient as possible is going to be a necessity. 

Think about the method and how it started. During the Depression, people didn't have the luxury of waste and excess. Businesses didn't have a bunch of money to spend on development and innovation. Notice, after World War II, America was the richest country on earth, and all of a sudden American companies felt it necessary to spend big bucks on finding the next biggest thing. A method of necessity was jettisoned as soon as it wasn't needed. 

I firmly believe all of us are going to need to implement this in some way, and it is a practicable skill. As you learn to look for the small things you can change in your life, you'll find joy in being able to maximize each component, which equals a massive shift over time. You could change things in your: 

  • Work-life 

  • Family life 

  • Spending habits 

  • Learning skills 

  • Driving 

  • Faith life  

  • Finances 

Think about gaps, inconsistencies, spots where energy, finances, or focus are sucked up, inefficiencies, or undisciplined areas. 


The Rule of 1% and the Kaizen Method 

The rule of 1% sums up the Kaizen method. Get 1% better every day. If that means one more push-up each day, you'll have 60 within two months. If you improve 1.01 percent each day, that means you'll be 37% better by the end of the year. You don't need to go for the big, dramatic changes. Dramatic, massive changes work directly against something like Kaizen or the 1% method.

We tend to get focused on a single, major change that needs to happen, and then become depressed and despondent when we fail. The small, continuous changes will give us feedback, and let us know what works or doesn't work, and the risk is small. The reward compounds over the long term, and you don't have to ever make a massive gamble. 

I urge you, to start keeping your eyes open to the small things. You'll find your life becomes more disciplined, more controlled, efficient, and prosperous. 

Kaizen is more fully explored over at Four Principles




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