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Latest insights and trends in Personal Analytics, Operational Intelligence, and Workplace Productivity.

Sep 08
Japanese vocabulary for productivity

Japanese economy is running full-speed and full-power with having most productive nation in the world. As someone working with productivity management concepts and having a personal experience of Japan, I decided to attain deeper knowledge on some notions that seem to have started latest Japanese economy boost.

If you are in any way familiar with Japanese culture of language you know that at times it is a quite challenging task to translate Japanese words, abundant with meanings, into other languages. The word 'kaizen' is not an exception. The most matching word for Kaizen in English would be 'improvement' although after Second World War, when kaizen became managerial practice in businesses as the way to economic recovery and was most successfully applied by Toyota, the notion of kaizen started to be used in the meaning of constant improvement' of work process. Nowadays spread worldwide as a practice kaizen is a technique for efficiency rise in various spheres of life.

Masaki Imai, Japanese organizational theorist, the author of 'Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success'(1986) outlined in his book that kaizen starts from fining the problem:

'If no problem is recognized, there is no recognition of the need for improvement'.

This leads to another Japanese word-concept 'hansei' meaning the acknowledgment
of problem or mistake and relating to the fact that self-awareness is the first step to improvement. Referring to mentioned above Toyota company there is a hansei-kai, a meeting held for reflection of problems faced during a work project. If there was no problem defined this is stated as a problem as it means employee did not evaluate all the possibilities for improvement of the project.

Another pithy Japanese word/concept is 'kanban'. It can be translated as 'visual signal' or 'card'. Originally applied by, again, Toyota team the methodology was used to match inventory with demand for higher level of work quality and to do this cards came into use to signal steps in manufacturing process. While it proved to be successful in ever-growing company, the alternative of applying Kanban as visualized management is that of interest.

Kanban is a simple method, a classic standing at roots of organizing any process and work life in particular. Those are colorful sticky notes put on the whiteboard so as to create roadmap of work to do. Kanban method takes information that is, as a rule, communicated in speech and makes it into easy for the brain to instantly comprehend picture, thus visualizing the tracking of workflow and effectiveness as well as difficulties and problems occurred on the work way. This data when analyzed brings ways to change the system of work for the better every single time some issue arises, in this way getting us back to the process of constant improvement.

These three Japanese words that were turned into business techniques applied all over the world are also the ways to Japanese effectiveness and productivity. They are interconnected and from my perspective they form a circle, but at the center of this circle I would put another word which is 'ikigai'.

According to Japanese, everyone has an ikigai which would be translated as 'reason for being or waking up in the morning', the thing that brings meaning and satisfaction to one's life. Such a broad and philosophical term when diminished to the field of one's professional activities is the definition of dream job I would say. To define ikigai one should list answers in four circles shown at the picture below:

 1) That what you are good at

2) That which you can be paid for

3) That which you love

 4) That which the world needs.


I believe ikigai is a driving force of efficient work while kaizen, hansei and kanban are the methodologies, the means of directing this force in a smart and productive way.

life ikigai.png


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