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Kaizen 改善 – Change for Better and that is not enough

Kaizen 改善, a phrase we are familiar with as an Agile practitioner, Scrum Master, Product Owner, Agile Coach, or in Development Team. Most of us know it as “Continuous Improvement”. The Scrum team continuous improving their process, their practice, and their product development environment.

It’s well known and pretty clearly defined in Scrum or Agile community. It was notable from The Toyota Production System, and lean is the essence of TPS.

Kaizen 改善 combines two words written in Chinese, the first word is Kai 改 and the second word is Zen 善. Kai 改 means Change and Zen 善 is Better, Kaizen 改善 means Change for Better.

The common myth for the Kaizen 改善 as Continuous Improvement is when you look at it in its origin which is Chinese, there is no Continue in it and Improvement itself is not enough to cover the essence of it. According to Merriam Webster online, improvement means:

  1. the act or process of improving
  2. a: the state of being improved; especially: enhanced value or excellence b: an instance of such improvement: something that enhances value or excellence

The translation is lost, there is no Change and the word Continuous is added for no reason.

We as Scrum Master, Agile practitioner or coach, part of the agile transformation is about Change. Kaizen 改善 has Change in it already, the change starts from us and starts from using the word Kaizen 改善 correctly, how to make something better? You have to Change first, that is what Kaizen 改善 is about. Only if you change, then you can make it better.

So next time when we say Kaizen 改善, let’s remember it’s Change for Better. You, your team, your company want to change or want a better outcome, you will Kaizen 改善 – Change for Better.

Kaizen 改善 – Change for Better.

Want better results? You need to Change first.

That is for Kaizen 改善, it did imply small changes when you are doing Kaizen 改善, which is the opposite of Kaikaku 改革.

Kaikaku 改革 means revolutionary change, this is a stronger phrase than Kaizen 改善. Kaikaku 改革 usually implies that if its success, there will be a whole new world ahead of us, however, if it fails, there will be consequences. But if you choose to do nothing, nothing will change, and someone will eat your lunch.

In my opinion, Kaizen 改善 is for process improvements examples like using Scrum or Kanban, and Kaikaku 改革 for product development or team, department, enterprise transformation, where you want disruptive innovation, you want the next generation of your products, you want digitalization. Be careful, just doing Kaizen 改善 won’t be enough to survive in the digitalized world, you can’t make horses run faster to be a car, you need Kaikaku 改革.

We will discuss Kaikaku 改革 next time.


Andrew Lin

The Kaikaku 改革 Master – The traditional Chinese translator team lead for Scrum Guide 2013, 2016, and 2017

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