James Steinberg/theispot.com

Taking baby steps to improve your company is tough when the economy is headed south and what you want is help now. But making small changes or continuous improvements — known in Japanese as kaizen — can help businesses, particularly those that have a collaborative culture, to reorganize and get reenergized.

In an article that appeared in the May 12 issue of TheNew Yorker, James Surowiecki notes that Toyota outsold General Motors by 160,000 cars in the first three months of 2008. The article then talks about how Toyota uses kaizen for innovation, describing it as “an incremental process, in which the goal is not to make huge, sudden leaps but, rather, to make things better on a daily basis.”


What’s good for Toyota may be good for the small business. Tim Sweeney, owner of Sweeney Construction, in Madison, Wis., says he began looking into kaizen to help him identify business issues and understand them before he moved forward. Kaizen’s framework is based on teamwork, personal discipline, improved morale, quality circles, and suggestions for improvement. (Turns out that Toyota implements a million ideas a year, most of them from employees.)

“We started out with one simple kaizen,” Sweeney says. “Our vehicle tires were low. Everyone was supposed to take care of this but no one was getting it done. We brainstormed about the problem and how to resolve it. The result is simple: One guy is responsible on a weekly basis for checking the trucks.” Though this may not sound monumental, it’s making small adjustments to such daily tasks that can lead to big changes. Kaizen is more a philosophy than a particular set of instructions.

Now, Sweeney says,“We’re working on a kaizen on bid process. We already did a change-order kaizen.”

In the kaizen ap­proach, Sweeney sees a thoughtful, collaborative method that can help make room for growth and change — what is needed now.