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Personal Kaizen: 15 Tips for your continuous improvement

Kaizen.slideKaizen (改善) means "improvement" — "kai" (改) means change/make better, and "zen" (善) means good — but as the term is used as a business process it more closely resembles in English “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is one of the keys to the steady improvement and innovation found at successful companies in Japan such as Toyota. Says Matthew May, in his book The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation, “Kaizen is one of those magical concepts that is at once a philosophy, a principle, a practice, and a tool.” Though Kaizen is a tool used by corporations to achieve greater innovation, productivity, and general excellence, it’s also an approach, an approach that we can learn from and apply to our own lives as we strive for continuous improvement on a more personal level. We can call this “Personal Kaizen.” Others have applied the personal kaizen approach to personal efficiency or GTD. You too can take the spirit of kaizen and apply it to your own unique personal kaizen approach to improve — step-by-step, little-by-little — your design mindfulness, knowledge, and skill.   

Long-term commitment
Keep_moving.slideThe overriding principles of kaizen is that it is daily, continuous, steady, and it takes the long-term view. Kaizen also requires a commitment and a strong willingness to change. I suggest you incorporate these principles into your own personal kaizen approach to learning all you can about design and visual communication over the long term. The interesting thing about kaizen is that big, sudden improvements are not necessary. Instead, what is important is that you’re always looking for ideas — including even the smallest of things — that you can build on. Tiny improvements are OK; over the long-term these add up to great improvements. Each journey begins with a single step — this too is a precept inherent in Kaizen. Keep moving forward.

No end to improvement
There is an old saying that goes “Once you think you have arrived, you have already started your descent.” One must never think they "have arrived." In the West we say "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But the spirit of kaizen suggests that there is always something to learn and ways to improve, and that it is also better to prevent problems than to fix them. So, no matter how good things may seem now, there is always room for improvement, and looking to improve every day is what the spirit of personal kaizen is all about. It’s not about how far you have come or how far you have yet to go, it is only about this moment and being open to seeing the lessons around you, and possessing the capacity and willingness to learn and improve.
There are many small things you can do to increase your design mindfulness and skills over time. Here are 15 tips in no particular order.

(1) Keep an analog scrapbook of design examples you find. From napkins to paper cups to business cards and brochures, flyers, and posters — whatever you find remarkable (good or bad) and fits inside a folder, a box, or a scrapbook. From time to time, review the contents of your analog examples and reflect on what works (and what doesn’t) and why. This activity is even better in a group where people occasionally come together and share their scrapbook contents with others in a kind of “examples of design show and tell.”

(2) Keep a digital scrapbook in the form of an online photo blog — either private or open to anyone to view — where you log all the examples of design you find of interest. Usually you can take a snap and then upload it to your blog right from your phone.

(3) Get out of your comfort zone. Participate in something creative that others may think is out of character for you. If you’re always comfortable, you probably are not growing. Dare to be weird (at least sometimes).

(4) Keep stimulating the "right side" of your brain by learning a musical instrument, or rediscovering the instrument you used to play. Playing music is one of those creative “whole mind” activities that will enrich your life (and work). You are never too old to learn to play an instrument.

(5) Read books on graphic design, typography, color, photography, documentary film making, and even architecture and other areas of design — you never know where the design lessons are to be found.

(6) Take some time to examine the packages in stores regardless of whether or not you are interested in the product. What catches your eye as you walk through a shop? Nothing is by accident — what were the designers trying to communicate with the package?

(7) Learn to draw by taking a class using the methods of Betty Edwards (or buy her books and videos). Get Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin and learn how to draw and talk at the same time at the whiteboard.

(8) Learn to take better photos. Since you'll be taking so many snaps to learn from and to share, why not get much better at the art of photography? Scott Kelby's books may be a good place to start. You don't have to become as good as the pros, but you can get much, much better. Learn what separates the great photos from the ordinary. The lessons from photography will help in your general guest to become a better visual thinker.

(9) Take an art class at the local community college or university. Don’t worry that it may not have “obvious applications for work.” The art — whatever it is — will teach you lessons about seeing and communicating through form. All you need to do is practice and enjoy the journey. You’ll find, perhaps unexpectedly, that there were indeed lessons in there that you later applied to your own work or personal life.

(10) Go for long walks alone (with ability to record your observations). As you walk, if an idea snaps into your head or you notice something that stimulates your imagination, use the voice recorder in your phone (or other device) to record the idea. It may seem odd, but I often even go jogging with my iPhone just in case I need to take a snap of something remarkable or an idea comes to mind that I need to record instantly. Besides relieving stress and keeping you fit, exercise seems to stimulate ideas. Record those ideas when possible in a way easiest for you.

(11) Get completely unplugged and off the grid — no iPhones or computers, etc. — and go for a walk, a hike, a bike ride, or whatever it is that allows you slow your busy mind. And what if that brilliant idea hits you and you can’t record it in any way or take a picture of a remarkable example? Don’t worry about it. Getting off the grid and freeing up your mind (and pockets) is necessary too.

(12) Make it a point to watch TED videos on line, especially those related to design and creativity; many of the presenters also use very effective, well-designed visuals. Subscribe to the TED RSS feed or follow TED on Twitter. Don't forget that many presentations have been translated.

(13) Go for walks in nature with a keen eye for the balance and the colors, lines, shapes, etc. that most people never pay attention to. What visual lessons can you get by stopping to look both at the whole and then zooming in to look at the particular? There is much to be learned by careful observation of nature. Artists already do this, but we can too.

(14) Teach others what you learn. One of the best ways to deepen and solidify your new knowledge is to teach it to others. Give a presentation, run a seminar, teach a class, or volunteer to run a small internal workshop to teach others in your organization what you are learning. Real learning occurs when you share it.

(15) Share your new knowledge and passion about design in a short presentation at your local Pecha Kucha Night, Ignite night, TEDx conference, Users Group meeting, or even your local Toastmasters meeting, and other associations. The more you share and the more you get out to these events, the more you learn.

There are many more things you can do to continuously improve and grow over the long-term. What are some of the things that work for you?

Related books
• One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way
• The Toyota Way


Samuli Pahkala


great post. With minor modification these 15 tips could apply to any area of life and business - not just for design.

Matt's book is one of the most referred to books in my blog - it is full of ideas how to implement kaizen and lean outside manufacturing.

Denis François Gravel (PRESENTability)

Thanks Garr. Excellent post....as usual.

I have started to use those "tips" some years ago and I can see the difference in my life.

My score is 12/15. Thanks to you, I now have three new tools to improve myself.

Suggestion for tip 16: Keep a notebook and a pencil in your pocket (moleskine). What we see and hear can inspire us and we don't want to lose that inspiration.

chris kluis


I just wanted to let you know that I used one of your presentations on Slideshare and gave out the copies of your book at Barcamp Tampa. Thanks so much for the support!!!

The presentation was extremely well recieved -

I came in there without a set presentation,
went over some basic rules,
I let the group pick a topic,
we story-boarded,
picked concepts,
visualized concepts via (istockphoto),
added some text

And everyone who didn't get a copy of our book (about 40 people) looked like they were on their way to grab a copy.

Thanks Again!!!

Ron Pereira

Hi Garr, I have been a fan of yours for some time... in fact PZ has influenced our company more than you can imagine.

You see, we sell online training teaching people about KAIZEN! And rather than 'death by PPT' we've done our very best to 'Zen things out' as we like to say.

Anyhow, it's very cool to see you writing about kaizen. Keep up the great work and thank you for the wisdom you've provided our company.

Ron Pereira
Gemba Academy

John Zimmer

A nice, succinct list, Garr.

Today I heard an interesting comment that, for me, is a take on your third point above (getting out of one's comfort zone). I heard it at the IBM Technology 2009 Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Larry Hirst, Chairman of IBM Europe, Middle East and Africa, said that we should look at ourselves as a big letter T. The vertical stem is our core competencies, our professional training. The horizontal part across the top represents the amount of time we have spent doing things outside our traditional work.

I found it to be a simple but effective metaphor.

Cheers and looking forward to the next post.

John Zimmer

Karen Cohen

Great piece on kaizen. After being in the fitness, wellness, and personal development arena for many years, we've found that this approach is a powerful key to making SUSTAINABLE positive change in one's life. Addressing the sizable gap between what people know they should do, or even really want to do, and what they ACTUALLY do and sustain - especially in regards to fitness and diet - is the focus of our work. We are shifting the paradigm toward sustainable fitness and wellness by embracing the dynamics of human energy management.

Kaizen works on so many levels, even the physiological as Dr. Maurer beautifully explains in "Kaizen: One Small Step Can Change Your Life". Highly recommended this book! Maurer inspired me to further this concept into our work in fitness, wellness and personal development. Continuing pushing the frontier forward.
Thanks for this!

Karen B. Cohen

KAIZEN Holistic Training & Wellness Studio
[email protected]

Jude Rathburn

Professor Reynolds - thank you for sharing your wisdom and inspiration. I bought your PZ book a few months ago and have been taking some small steps to incorporate your approach to presentation design in the business courses I teach. I have been a university professor for 16 years and the death by powerpoint culture has had a firm grasp on me - at least until now. But, as you point out in your video from your Google talk, it is hard work to design for simplicity and clarify the story that I want to tell.

Like the majority of my colleagues, putting lots of information on slides makes it easier for me to present, partly because I don’t have to know “the story” very well – I can “wing it” without having to look at my notes or review the text material. But the times that I have been able to just tell my story and let go of the trappings of text on a screen – are the times when my students have actually listened and heard the message behind the words. Yet it takes a lot of time and energy on my part to prepare a presentation that is zen-like in its simplicity, yet powerful in terms of impact.

I often get discouraged when I don't have the time or energy to make every presentation zen-like in aesthetics, content and delivery. Yet this blog has reminded me of the importance of beginner's mind, as well as compassion for myself - at least I am trying to think about presentation design differently. Your suggestions about taking the spirit of kaizen and applying it to my own unique personal kaizen approach to improve — step-by-step, little-by-little — my design mindfulness, knowledge, and skill - will help me keep plugging away on this long journey. Thanks for providing a bit of a roadmap to guide me along the way.

John Turner

Hi Garr - when I can I read your blogs.

Kaizen has clearly been mis-applied in management circles (for "continual improvement", read "continual productivity improvement" and wail at Toyota's fate!)

The actual spirit of Kaizen that you describe so fully reminds me of Aristotle's advice that excellence is a habit, and also that the study of rhetoric should include artistic endeavour and emjoyment, rather than simple the hunt for the killer soundbite that pervades modern political rhetoric.

Great site (I've said it before!)

Bren Murphy

Garr, really powerful thoughts here - I am applying them not to design - but to sobriety and overcoming addiction and they make a great resource for re-focusing the the monkey-mind of addiction.
Bren Murphy

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