“WHY” and how Kaizen can fail you


A recent conversation about Kaizen prompts me to highlight what it truly takes for it to work for you and your business.

“Kaizen” is the Japanese word for Improvement.

In industry, it is used to mean continuous improvement. It was pioneered by Toyota, but, as business around the world has gradually seen that using “command and control” process improvement is nowhere near as effective as a motivated team focussed on continuous improvement, Kaizen has been co-opted into “Agile” and other ways to improve in business.

The thing is, when adopting Kaizen methods, I’ve seen it fail to have the desired effect in businesses with reasonable frequency. Why?

Let’s break down why Kaizen may fail to deliver improvement into three elements:

  • “WHY?”
  • The Five Whys
  • Trust and Respect over Blame


  • First, “WHY?” is the most confrontational question in English. Always be aware of the power of language and that asking WHY, though it does cut straight to the point, can have people being questioned feel confronted and close down.

The Five Whys (from a blog on this by Buffer)


  • The 5 Whys technique was developed and fine-tuned within the Toyota Motor Corporation as a critical component of its problem-solving training.
  • Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System in the 1950s, describes the method in his book Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach . . . by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”
  • Ohno encouraged his team to dig into each problem that arose until they found the root cause. “Observe the production floor without preconceptions,” he would advise. “Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter.”

Trust and Respect over Blame

  • So, using the idea that “Why?” is the most confrontational question, then referencing “The Five Whys” as a tool to get to the source of an issue, why then might “The Five Whys” and other elements of Kaizen not deliver improvement?
  • Simple. If we look to assign blame rather than use an issue as a learning opportunity, it won’t work.
  • For Kaizen to deliver improvement, we must Trust and Respect our people.
  • Toyota operates from seven Guiding Principles, one of which is: “Foster a corporate culture that enhances both individual creativity and the value of teamwork, while honouring mutual trust and respect between labour and management.”
  • Eric Rise of “Lean Start-Up” fame, puts it thus in this seminal blog: “When something goes wrong, we tend to see it as a crisis and seek to blame. A better way is to see it as a learning opportunity.”

So, as Toyota do and have always done since their founder created their guiding principles, look to improve, never to blame.

Trust and Respect your people and you too can shift to a business culture of Kaizen, of continuous improvement that everyone feels part of and motivated and empowered to always contribute to.

Also published on Medium.