The five Ss, kaizen and meaningful, sustainable and positive change

Makeover videos on YouTube are my guilty pleasure.  I love looking at “before and after” videos and seeing the positive change.  Recently, however, I’ve started to wonder if these videos are daunting me rather than inspiring me.  You probably know how they work.  Someone takes a problem, throws expertise and effort at it (and sometimes money as well) and the end result is amazing.  Now, I get the fact that sometimes this is the only realistic way to tackle a problem, like when you’re really short on time and you need to get it done or you’ve just had enough of the way things are and you just want to get it done and dusted, but more and more I’m starting to think that I can’t be the only person who looks at these videos and wonders how they’ll ever find the time or the energy (or the money) to make a huge change like that.  Recently, however, I suddenly remembered something I’ve actually known for a long time but never really thought about.  Most meaningful and sustainable changes are actually made in small, continuous steps.

That’s the idea behind kaizen.  It’s a Japanese term and translations differ but I like “continuous, incremental improvement”.  To me, kaizen is all about making a commitment that you will actively look for opportunities to make the world a better place and to make your own life more meaningful and joyful, however small those opportunities might be.  I think of kaizen as a manageable approach to improvement.  Instead of thinking “how can I clean the oceans of plastic?”, kaizen says “what small steps can I take to reduce the amount of plastic I throw away?”.  It encourages me to think of such small wins as meaningful instead of falling into the trap of thinking that any difference I make is going to be pointless given the scale of the problem.

If you do some research on the internet, you’ll find all kinds of people with their interpretation of kaizen, but the version I like best is the concept of the five Ss:

Set in order

Sort - this is basically the equivalent of decluttering and can be physical or mental.  Ditch all the unnecessary “stuff” and focus on what really matters.

Set in order

In basic terms this means “a place for everything and everything in its place”.  Of course, the less you have to being with the easier it is to find an appropriate place for everything, hence the importance of the sorting process.


Take care of what you have so that it lasts you over the long term.  Clean it appropriately, give it regular maintenance, show it some love.  This, by the way, goes for your mind and body as well as your possessions.


Set up systems and processes so that you can use your time and other resources as efficiently as possible.  This is the part of kaizen which is usually most important to business and I think it can be one of the most challenging concepts to implement in our personal lives too, so I’ll talk about it in more detail later.


Keep up the good work.  Keep repeating this process so that it becomes part of your mind and hence part of your life.

So going back to the topic of standardising

In the real world, standardizing can mean simply formalizing a working system or recording a successful process so that it can be learned and repeated.  Often, however, it means looking at existing systems and processes and seeing how they can be improved.  This is where companies look to apply the principles of kaizen, which I have summarized in my own way as follows.

The 10 Basic Kaizen Principles

1. Always be open to new ideas on how to do things.

At least give it a try, if you decide the old way is better (it may be), you can always go back to it.

2. Never play the blame game

What matters is how to improve on the current situation.  This may involve finding the root cause of a particular issue, but recognize that it’s (usually) self-defeating to point fingers.  Accept that you are where you are and decide what you are going to do now.

3. Stay positive - open your mind with “how”.

The human mind is amazing, it truly is incredible what it will do for you if you give it a chance.  If you start telling yourself “I can’t”, your mind will just stop there.  If, however, you try asking yourself “how can I?”, then you might be surprised just how often you can actually come up with a way to achieve your goal.

4. Done is better than perfect

If you wait until everything is perfect, you run the risk of never actually doing anything (analysis paralysis).  If it’s an improvement, just do it, perfection can come later.

5. Correct mistakes as soon as they are found.

When you’re in a hole, stop digging and start filling.

6. Creativity is more important than capital.

Money can disguise problems but it very rarely brings about a sustainable solution on its own.  For example, say you have a lot of clutter.  You could throw money at the problem and buy a shed in which to store it or rent a storage unit.  Both of these actions will indeed, solve the problem of your cluttered home, but unless you actually address the issues behind your clutter, the chances are the clutter will just come right back.  

7. Keep asking why until you get to the root cause.

The first explanation which comes to your mind will be the obvious one, you will, however, probably have to dig rather deeper to find the really meaningful explanation.

8. Better the wisdom of 5 people that then the expertise of 1.

Expertise addresses the how, wisdom addresses the why.  Expertise can be valuable, but when you are addressing the issue of change, you generally need to start with the why.

9. Base decisions on data not opinions.

Everyone has an opinion, do they have the data to back it up?

10. Improvement needs to be demonstrated in practice

By all means think and discuss, but improvement only has meaning when it is applied in a real-world situation.

In future posts, I’ll update you with how I’m getting on with applying kaizen in my life!

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