Performance Cues from the Pacific Rim

Carved chess pieces on a symbolizing kaizen strategy
Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

Tokyo. With sophisticated architecture, an infinite selection of culinary experiences, and not one but two baseball stadiums downtown, it’s hard to believe it was ever a small fishing village called Edo in the 15th century.

I traveled to Japan’s capital city many times for business while at Prologis, and it was always an inspiring visit. I marveled each time when I landed in one of the cleanest cities in the world. Even taxicab rides felt like Marie Kondo excursions with white-gloved drivers and pristine white sheets lining the backseat for passengers.

People who live in Tokyo have a dedication to cleanliness and organization that evokes a culture fitting for their kaizen-approach to business. “Kai” means “become” and “zen” means “good.” More specifically, the kaizen philosophy or way of life prioritizes continuous improvement by applying small, ongoing positive changes to reap major improvements. It’s a philosophy that we should be mindful of as we seek to improve our business skills.

Organizational theorist and management consultant, Masaaki Imai said, “The message of the kaizen strategy is that not a day should go by without some kind of improvement being made somewhere in the company.” Kaizen followers believe that if you nurture small consistent changes over time, large-scale management changes become less necessary.

Kaizen was made famous by the Toyota Motor Corporation and is still used today by companies like Great Western Bank, Herman Miller, Lockheed Martin, Ford Motor Company, Nestle and the Mayo Clinic. To learn about its impact at Toyota, read Jeffrey K. Liker’s The Toyota Way (McGraw Hill, 2003).

The five key elements of kaizen practices are: teamwork, personal discipline, improved morale, quality circles and suggestions for improvement. From these elements, three tactics emerge: elimination of waste, good housekeeping, and standardization. My Prologis team in Tokyo embodied much of what has made kaizen such a popular philosophy. The most memorable aspects for me were:

Teamwork

During my site visits, the team’s communication style conjured a sense of family. That mindset fed a deeper commitment to the larger objective and culture. When I asked each Prologis office around the world to choose a community service project, it was no surprise that the Tokyo team rallied around a cause near and dear to them: They contacted cities where they did business and offered to do clean-up projects to beautify the surroundings. In doing so, they became viewed as a good corporate citizen.

Zeal for Excellence

The Tokyo team also consistently produced quality in everything they did. They over-delivered again and again. Their construction projects were not only exceptionally built, but they were beautiful buildings as well. I always came away from my visits with a sense that they were extremely focused on not just good, but great results.

Discipline

The consistent dedication to quality of work from the leadership team was second to none. Their discipline resulted in projects that were routinely on time and always under budget. Our employees continually pursued excellence, and nothing was more important to them than exceeding the company’s objective.

The kaizen approach to business is a practice I’ve not only appreciated over the years, but a philosophy I’ve come to personally support as a result of interactions with my colleagues in Japan. As you lead your own teams in your corner of the world, be mindful of your opportunities to adopt this way of life. What begins with small incremental improvements over time, later becomes a movement resulting in large-scale positive change.   

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