5 reasons why kaizen continuous improvement is bullshit

This graphic sums up a popular meme.

The supposed idea is that if you improve 1% every day, then you will be 37.7 times better by the end of the year. What a win! After all, that’s how compound growth works!

This idea comes from the Japanese concept of kaizen, which is a management philosophy of continuous improvement.

If you pursue this goal as an individual, you will fail — and you will be sad. Here are five reasons why.

1 You are not a company

Kaizen is a corporate management principle, not a personal one. The kaizen philosophy, as executed at Toyota for example, focuses on everyone throughout the company making whatever improvements or fixes are necessary for things to get incrementally better. The idea is that many small improvements will accumulate to generate larger success over time.

For companies, this philosophy is plausible, but disputed. That said, I can imagine how companies, in particular manufacturing companies, could make incremental improvements every day through contributions from thousands of individuals.

But you are not a company. You are a person. People don’t improve the way companies do, because their psyches and abilities are complex, beset by hundreds of internal and external factors.

2 You are not a machine

What does it mean for an individual to “improve?” Does this mean you can lift 1% more weight every day, generate 1% more written words, love your children 1% more?

It’s very sad if you think you can measure your worth in a way that can be this precisely quantified. Output from an automotive assembly line can be quantified: cars per week, defects per car. Output from a human can’t — and the portions of human output that you can measure fall far short of comprising your total worth as a person.

3 Your progress is not multiplicative

The power rule in the second equation depends on the fact that the improvements pile upon one another. That is, if you improve 1% on the first day, you have established a new base of 101% of your previous productivity, and that is the new base for the second day. The improvement is supposed to build on itself, like compound interest.

But even if you personally improve 1% in some way, that doesn’t mean your new base is 101%. If you are a cartoonist and find you can generate 1% more cartoons one day than you did the day before, that doesn’t mean you have a new productivity of 1% more. On your next day, you have to start from scratch once again.

Small consistent efforts are more likely to get you a plateau — say a consistent 10% improvement — than a steady and inexorable hockey-stick growth.

And if you improve in some dimension, that may not help you in another dimension. If you are 1% more creative on Tuesday than on Monday, that doesn’t improve the number of reps you can do in the gym, or your ability to drive with more alertness, or the degree to which you succeed in your love life.

4 Your progress has limits

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that your yardstick for productivity is something you can measure with a number, like the number of words of advertising copy you can create.

And let’s imagine that as you get better at writing, each day you achieve a constant 1% increase in words produced per hour. (That’s probably impossible, but let’s continue this thought experiment.)

If you produce 100 words per hour on the first day of the year, and 101 words per hour on the second day, and 102.01 words per hour on the third day . . . do you really think you can produce 3770 words per hour on the last day of the year?

There is a theoretical limit to how many words you can produce. If the best copywriter can produce 1,000 words per hour, you’re not going to get to 3770. And even if you somehow could, you’re certainly not going to get to 142,758 words hour at end of year two!

As a human, you can only do so much. You don’t produce at a mathematical rate. Your productivity has bounds.

5 The best progress is uneven

What is it actually like to be a person attempting to get better?

There are days when your best friend dies, or you start your day with the dog throwing up, or your back goes out, or you get COVID, or you just experience existential depression. On those days, you will not achieve a 1% improvement compared to what you did the previous day.

There are also days when you take a training session and learn to be a far better presenter, or you somehow “get” coding in Python, or you realize your relationship is humming along and it’s making you happier, or you get promoted and get a whole team helping you to realize your vision. On those days, you might end up twice as productive, or ten times as productive.

This is what life is like. We don’t take 1% steps of improvement every day. We take lots of steps forward and backward and sideways, some large and some small. We may be getting better and better over time, but it’s certainly not at some theoretical 1% rate of improvement — or any steady rate of improvement.

6 Bonus reason: the math is wrong

(1.01)365 = 37.78, or rounded, 37.8, not 37.7. The people who made the meme can’t even use a calculator correctly!

What you should actually do

Should you give up on continuous improvement? Of course not. You may as well try to get better. But I suggest a more realistic set of tips for how to do that.

  1. Journal. Take note every day of what you did, how it worked out, and what you felt about it. See if you can figure out what is working and what’s not. A key to making improvements is to recognize when things are changing.
  2. Invest in yourself. What is holding you back? Do you wish you knew how to do content marketing? How to run a lathe? How to make bread? Whatever you want to do, that you cannot yet do, what would it take to learn how to do that? Make the effort to learn. That’s how you’ll improve, not 1% a day, but by leaps and bounds.
  3. Measure what matters — and it’s probably not productivity. That “You are not a machine” point above? Well, if you try to be a machine, you will be unhappy. What matters is what makes you happy and fulfilled. If you measure improvements in your salary, you will find it eventually does not fulfill you. If you measure growth by how many people report to you, that probably isn’t what’s going to make you happy, either. Take note of the things that do make you happy — creating ad campaigns, having time to go surfing, building Legos with your children, writing — and see if you can figure out how to do more of those things. And check in with yourself from time to time; what made you happy in your 20s probably won’t make you happy in your 40s or 60s.
  4. Give yourself a break. We all fail. If you fall off the (virtual) work treadmill, that may not make your boss happy, but it happens. Take care of yourself and figure out how to get back on track — or onto a better track. Failures are opportunities to make positive change, but only if you forgive yourself for taking a step back on your imagined “constant” path to improvement.
  5. Figure out what’s wasteful, and replace it. If you really want to improve, a great way to do it is to figure out what you’re spending time on that’s not helping. How much time do you spend on social media? On watching streaming video? Do those things make you happy? I’m not suggesting that you necessarily replace those activities with productive ones, although you could. It’s just as good to replace them with satisfying activities, like visiting friends or a pursuing a hobby.
  6. Look for the big wins. I think the most useful thing you can do to improve is to seek, not tiny incremental improvements, but massive discontinuous improvements. If you do something and say, “This is great,” what would it take to do more of that? If you find out that the most interesting part of your work is writing strategy reports, how could you move ahead in your career in a way that allows you to become a strategist? If you find that you’re most productive between 5am and 6am, how could you rearrange your day to take advantage of that? If you stopped drinking for a couple days and found yourself much happier and more productive, what would it take to stop drinking altogether, or only on weekends? Recognizing these potential big wins is hard enough, but the real challenge is making them a permanent reality. That often takes planning, training, or counseling. But if you pursue big changes with an appropriate level of effort, you’ll get farther ahead in big jumps, not tiny steps. And that’s worth pursuing.

Some final thoughts about memes

Motivational memes are fun. They’re also bullshit.

If you see something glib like this and feel like saying, “Yeah, that’s right,” you should immediately be skeptical.

Memes don’t qualify as insight. They feel good. But if you examine them closely, as I just did, you’ll see how often they’re actually meaningless and counterproductive bullshit.

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  1. Pouring cold water on a fashionable idea won’t win you friends. But someone’s gotta do it. Josh is one of three or four writers who do it well and do it thanklessly. Libertarian columnist Megan McArdle is another.

  2. I can’t help but think you’ve missed one of the key points of continuous improvement (not a big fan of using Japanese terms to make someone appear like they know what they are talking about – they rarely do). But real continuous improvement (that can be applied at both personal and organisational levels) is about habit forming to the extent that the repetitive actions become engrained and therefore second nature – allowing you more time to focus on more important things that may be chaotic and disordered. So a new process (assuming it’s actually a good process) can become part of everyday life and you don’t have to think about it. It doesn’t mean it can’t be changed when it’s no longer valid either!

    1. I am very much a proponent of the idea that habit formation is a path to improvement. But (1) it tends to be discontinuous, that is, once a habit is formed, it gives you a bump in productivity, rather than small incremental improvements, and (2) it does not build on itself — a habit, once created, doesn’t keep growing.

      So keep making better habits, just don’t think of that as small continuous compounding improvements.

      1. The same with continuous improvement – it doesn’t mean that you keep going once you reach an acceptable level of improvement. You change your focus – and if you’re smart enough, you find a focus that may continue to have an effect on the previous effort. I’ve spent the past ⅔ of my career successfully doing this in business and for myself. Like all good (and bad) things there’s not a single right way of doing stuff – but when you combine a bunch of good ideas you can achieve great things

  3. In my experience, personal improvement comes in chunks, jumps rather than incremental progress. I remember learning to play an instrument as a kid. You practiced and practiced but it seemed got only marginally better. Then one day, you were much better. I’ve found the same pattern learning new skills and new fields of interest. In fact I’d say one area where that has been obvious for me is writing skills.