Focus on being better, not the best
Welcome to Self-Mastery — a place of timeless ideas to help you become the architect of your mind and create yourself, starting from the inside.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but habit.”
“Change is for good”, is the ancient principle that defines Kaizen. Kaizen (改善) is the Sino-Japanese word for “improvement”, meaning to make small but continuous improvements in all processes that create you and your success.
The Japanese believed that, rather than big, sweeping changes in your habits and systems every once in a while, you could discover more effective results through tiny efforts over a long period of time—sacrificing your short-term desires for long-term happiness. Many Japanese companies applied the concept to help easily eliminate defects, ensure long term superior quality and reach excellent customer satisfaction. But no other global company represents Kaizen better than Toyota.
Quality control is the heart of every successful business—and person—and other company honoured it better than Toyota from the 1980s to now. Toyota literally wrote the book on achieving the highest quality production standards—and that’s something of magic considering the humble background from which they were born.
Most people know Toyota for its inexpensive, yet astonishingly reliable cars. They weren’t luxurious or premium, but they were forged with world-class precision and excellent quality. They required such low maintenance that the most inexperienced American would have no problem keeping it in good shape. And with little doubt, they outlasted their American counterparts.
Toyota began manufacturing their cars in Japan using a new and unprecedented program for quality control based on Kaizen: the Toyota Production System. It was so advanced that, for a long time, no other company could match it.
Today, Toyota still embody this principle in their philosophy throughout their brand and now their luxury sister company: Lexus.
American manufacturers have been trying tirelessly to match Toyota’s Kaizen Production System since its inception. Some were more successful than others, but nobody has still been able to match it. It is as much of a philosophy as it is an action in Toyota; a big picture approach. From the management to the design fundamentals to the production floor, everyone who works at Toyota grasps this concept. Even Toyota’s part supplier abides by it because only the highest level of quality control is what Toyota accepts.
Now, one of the most recent companies I’ve been happy to see apply a similar philosophy to quality and innovation is Tesla. Since the beginning, when most people were unaware of their mission and products, Elon Musk was spreading the idea of First Principles: a fundamental understanding of a particular idea or thing so you can utilise all of its possibilities. This helped them reduce their cost of materials, create the safest cars on the planet, and bring Electric vehicles to a market utterly dominated by Internal Combustion Engines—something nobody thought was possible for almost a century.
Toyota and Tesla have specific systems and ways of thinking that help them continuously improve and maintain a high standard. These are things we can take and apply to our own lives to both problem-solve and improve ourselves quicker than we think possible. Here’s two for you below:
Toyota: “Genchi Genbutsu” (現地現物) which translates to “real location, real thing”—solve problems at the source. Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, used to take new graduates to the shopfloor and draw a circle of chalk on the floor. He would then ask a graduate to stand in the circle and observe and note what he saw. Ohno would leave, and upon his return, he would check the notes. If the graduate had not seen enough, then they would be asked to continue observing until they noted all problems with the shopfloor. Ohno was trying to instil that to truly understand what happens on the shop floor; you must go there and observe the problems there. “If the problem exists on the shop floor then it needs to be understood and solved on the shop floor”.
Tesla: “Rate of Innovation”. Musk mentions this often in interviews, but I feel as if its often overlooked. Tesla has surpassed and wiped the floor with all competitors in the electric vehicle market so quickly because of their understanding of their speed of innovation. They’ve created the worlds safest production vehicles from scratch, and continue to design safer and more intelligent cars faster than anyone. The only competitor that comes close is Volkswagen—and even they admit they are at least a decade behind. Your rate of innovation is the speed at which you improve, whether that’s communication, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, strength, etc. It signifies the importance of Kaizen; constantly improving, faster.
So, how can we apply this to ourselves?
First, forget about the idea of “being the best”. This thinking confines you to the possibilities of just your time, not the possibilities of your actual capabilities. Your goal shouldn’t be to be the best; it should be to be ever-improving, every single day. And this will give you more happiness and energy.
If you want to be better, or better at being better, you must practice Kaizen, daily. You are always trying to improve, whether you realise or not, so it’s better to work on improving faster and better than to be half-hearted throughout your life.
Life is about better relationships, better work habits, better physical performance, etc. A tiny amount of work per day is what it means to practice Kaizen. It is a philosophy that escapes the person who is content with laziness and forever gifts the person who desires improvement.
We can learn from the success of Toyota and Tesla today to know that:
We should always confront our problems at the source, not allowing them to stretch further and create problems elsewhere.
We should work on our rate of innovation, focusing on small improvements quickly, than large improvements every now and again.
Kaizen defines what it means to live a better life, day after day, minute after minute. We start by improving how we solve our problems; then we work on how to improve our solutions. The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking, as Einstein once said.
What’s on My Mind
I’ll leave these quote here today:
“And as individuals in society, we don’t learn to think that the best way to go after a bad situation is not to blame others, or even ourselves, but to understand where we are now and where to head next.”
For more reading on First Principles, I’d recommend this. For more on Toyota and Kaizen, have a read here.
Thank you for reading, and have a lovely week ahead.
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