June 06, 2018


I first heard the Japanese word kaizen visiting my friend @RobTesky at @ChacoSandals back in the late 90s. During that period I visited as many production facilities as I could for inspiration for our own workshop. Chaco was one of the few companies producing footwear in the USA (everyone else had migrated to low labor cost factories in Asia) and I wanted to talk to their iconoclastic founder, @MarkPaigen. I can't remember if Rob or Mark mentioned kaizen to me, but I instantly loved the concept.

Kaizen, in the West and applied to organizations, is generally translated as "constant improvement." Instead of having a management team review systems or processes periodically, the idea is to empower all employees to make small, incremental improvements every day. This fosters autonomy, pride in workmanship, efficiency, safety, etc.

There are several wonderful assumptions inherent in this process: that people doing a job have insight into that job, that people matter, that small changes matter, that small changes aggregate into big changes over time, that trial and error works, that even after years of doing something there are always ways to make it better (faster, safer, cleaner, etc.).

Kaizen is appealing to me because it only gives, it doesn't take. It's more evidence that life and business are not zero sum games. We can provide a customer a better product at a lower price with a better margin and have more fun doing so than we did last year. And then we can do that again. Wow.

(Photo: by designing a new fixture to hold our bottle opener heads during laser engraving we increased throughput, reduced quality problems, and speeded up load/unload times.)