Kaizen and self-efficacy


James Surowiecki of The New Yorker recently wrote about Toyota's astonishing success since the end of World War II. Central to his article is the Japanese concept of kaizen, or incremental improvement. As he describes it,

Instead of trying to throw long touchdown passes, as it were, Toyota moves down the field by means of short and steady gains. And so it rejects the idea that innovation is the province of an elect few; instead, it’s taken to be an everyday task for which everyone is responsible. According to Matthew E. May, the author of a book about the company called “The Elegant Solution,” Toyota implements a million new ideas a year, and most of them come from ordinary workers. <!--break-->(Japanese companies get a hundred times as many suggestions from their workers as U.S. companies do.) Most of these ideas are small—making parts on a shelf easier to reach, say—and not all of them work. But cumulatively, every day, Toyota knows a little more, and does things a little better, than it did the day before.
Nothing new there (if you know anything about kaizen, that is). But it got me thinking about the concept of self-efficacy, which is the belief that one has the power and ability to produce achieve certain goals. Perhaps not surprisingly, a high degree of self-efficacy is one of the most common -- and most notable -- traits of extremely successful people. (It's hard to imagine Napoleon, Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, or Madonna accomplishing what they did while thinking, "Geez, I kind of suck. There's no way I could ever get where I want to go.) The truth is that whether you have grand goals like becoming the king of rock 'n roll, or more modest ones like getting your meetings to start on time, you probably won't make them happen unless you've got a fairly developed sense of self-efficacy.

I know this may sound a bit granola-y (bring on Tony Robbins! bring on Werner Erhard!), but I raise this issue because recently I worked with a group of people who despaired at their inability to make substantive improvements in their work culture. In their eyes, there was no way they could work without interruptions, there was no way they could push back when a boss requested something in an unreasonable timeframe, no way that they could implement basic rules around email and workflow that would enhance everyone's efficiency. Their low degree of self-efficacy created an environment in which there could be no kaizen -- after all, why bother trying to make improvements (or even make suggestions for improvements) when the organization as a whole would only squash those efforts?

But they were thinking about their changes wrong. Of course those 14 people wouldn't be able to change a 6500 person organization. However, they did (and do) have the ability to improve their own personal efficiency, and even the efficiency of their department of 45 people. It's a matter of kaizen -- incremental changes in the way they process paper and email, and they way they handle their calendar -- that will pay dividends in the long run.

Self-efficacy and kaizen go hand-in-hand. If you don't believe that you can make a change, you won't generate the ideas necessary for improvement.

What idea are you going to try?

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