What is Kaizen?

In February 2019, an article on mlb.com by Greg Johns states: “The official motto of the (Seattle) Mariners’ Spring Training — as posted boldly on the team’s clubhouse walls at the Peoria Sports Complex — is “Kaizen.” 1 Every year the manager of the team creates a mantra. “This year, (Manager Scott) Servais chose a Japanese word: Kaizen,” writes Ryan Divish for the Seattle Times.2 What does kaizen mean? How does a word made famous by the Toyota Production System (TPS) in the lean manufacturing world become the motto for a professional baseball team?

Image from: https://www.kanbanchi.com/what-is-kaizen

Simply translated from Japanese to English, kai = change and zen = good. Kaizen essentially means good change; it is also commonly used to say continuous improvement, where small improvements over time produce big results. The core of lean manufacturing in the TPS is identifying and removing waste, maximizing processes that add value, and continuously improving the systems and processes of the organization. Kaizen is one of the foundations of the TPS because the entire philosophy is based on the idea that everything can be improved. Every process has the potential to be better tomorrow than it is today.

“It sounds like a mystical Japanese philosophy passed down by wise, bearded sages who lived in secret caves” say Brett and Kate Mckay.3 But we aren’t talking about zen gurus who levitate above a foggy mountaintop in full lotus. We are talking about Toyota, arguably the best manufacturing system in the world. We are talking about a professional baseball team’s season motto. How does kaizen go from zen monk, to titans of industry, to a sports team? Because it is such a simple concept. Everything can be better than it is now. Small improvements over time produce massive results. You don’t have to change the entire system today, or in the next week, or even the next month. However, make a small incremental improvement every single day and you will have made large strides forward after a while.

I am a huge fan of Tim Ferriss and highly recommend both his bestselling books and world famous podcast. A theme that is constantly repeated by Tim is that when people try to learn a new skill, get rid of a bad habit, or implement a positive habit, they often start too big and end up failing very quickly. Just look at the classic New Years resolution to start going to the gym. Go to any gym the first week of January and it is packed with people who have the best intentions to change their lifestyle and become healthier, happier people. I applaud anyone who is trying to make this change in their life. But most of them drop out of the routine within a few weeks. Why? Often, they go cold turkey from not exercising at all to telling themselves they are going to go to the gym one hour per day, 5 days per week. That is a massive change for someone who is starting at zero or close to it. They make it the first two days, but on the third day, life or work or family get in the way and they miss a session. They start missing more days and pretty soon it’s back to the way it was before. In this example, and many like it, the kaizen approach would be best. Rather than jumping from zero to one hour a day five days per week, start with 10 or 20 minutes one, two, or three days a week. Start small. Give yourself a goal that you can achieve so you don’t feel like a complete failure when you don’t live up to the unrealistic expectations you set for yourself. Build up from there. After all, 10 minutes of exercise two days a week is a hell of a lot better than zero. Pretty soon that turns into 15 minutes and then again becomes 3 days per week. Eventually, you might build up to the original goal. But small, incremental, continuous improvement got you there. Not diving in head first. Get the wheel turning and then use the momentum to keep moving forward.

Image from https://jamesclear.com/continuous-improvement

“Big, giant goals can be awe-inspiring. But like many awe-inspiring things — a lion, a black hole, the Grand Canyon — they can also swallow you whole… Our quest to become better often feels like a roller coaster ride with its proverbial ups and downs. By the time you’re headed down Self-Improvement Mountain for the twentieth time, you’re vomiting out the side of your cart in self-disgust, cursing yourself that you once again bought a ticket to ride” write Brett and Kate McKay.3 Kaizen is the philosophy that will end your roller coaster of starting and stopping. In an article on inc.com titled Don’t Try to Be the Best. Just Be 1% Better Every Day, James Altucher writes that if you can improve 1% every day “you will be 3800% better (38 times better!) in one year. Nobody does that. That’s what superheroes do. You will be a superhero. Then everyone else will be worrying how they can compete with you.” 4 Making that 1% change might not even be noticeable from one day to the next. But if you continue to making those 1% improvements over time, “you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don’t. (James Clear).” 5

“Graphic inspired by The Slight Edge” and taken from https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/get-1-better-every-day-the-kaizen-way-to-self-improvement/

Unfortunately for the Seattle Mariners, an article published by cbssports.com on September 6, 2019 was titled “The Mariners have been eliminated and the longest postseason drought in North American sports is one year longer.” 6 Kaizen didn’t end their historic playoff drought. However, Mike Axisa does write in that article “The Mariners have found some potential long-term building blocks this season.” So one step better? Maybe. But professional sports are weird, and not always a reflection of real life. As the cliche saying goes, progress not perfection. Remember, kaizen is a philosophy and belief and system all at the same time. Believe that you can make everything better tomorrow than it is today. Use the system of small, manageable, incremental improvements and see where you land six months from now. One is more than zero, and two is twice as big as one. Those small numbers add up, as long as you believe change is possible.

Kaizen = Good change.

– Tyson


  1. “Mallex injury opens door for OF prospects,” by Greg Johns, February 16, 2019, https://www.mlb.com/mariners/news/mallex-smith-injury-opens-door-for-prospects-c304044944
  2. “Mariners Sunday mailbag: Explaining the Japanese origin of the team’s new slogan,” by Ryan Divish, March 31, 2019 at 6:00 am Updated April 1, 2019 at 8:38 am, https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/mariners/mariners-sunday-mailbag-explaining-the-japanese-origin-of-the-teams-new-slogan/
  3. “Get 1% Better Every Day: The Kaizen Way to Self-Improvement,” by Brett and Kate McKay, July 31, 2020 • Last updated: September 5, 2020, https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/get-1-better-every-day-the-kaizen-way-to-self-improvement/
  4. “Don’t Try to Be the Best. Just Be 1% Better Every Day,” by Quora, written by James Altucher, NOV 15, 2016, https://www.inc.com/quora/dont-try-to-be-the-best-just-be-1-better-every-day.html
  5. “Continuous Improvement: How It Works and How to Master It,” by James Clear, https://jamesclear.com/continuous-improvement
  6. “The Mariners have been eliminated and the longest postseason drought in North American sports is one year longer,” by Mike Axisa, Sep 6, 2019 at 12:38 pm ET, https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/phillies-introduce-dave-dombrowski-as-new-president-what-to-make-of-his-j-t-realmuto-and-payroll-comments/

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