Is the Japanese concept of Kaizen the solution to quiet quitting?

By Louis Blatt

We were squarely into the pandemic, and I was running into problems with remote work. People just weren’t engaged. I couldn’t blame them; we were in a once-a-century pandemic event, and I was head of a 500-person department at a large software company that had pivoted to remote work at extremely short notice.

We were experiencing a wave of quiet quitting where many of my employees had silently disengaged from their jobs. Today, they’re in good company—one Zippia study reports that only 20% of Americans are passionate about their jobs.

Even if I didn’t have the name for it, I knew that my employees were not as engaged as I wanted them to be, and I was ready to dive deep to fix it. Hundreds of hours of research later, I stumbled upon the answer in an old McKinsey article.

Back in post-WWII Japan, the leadership at Toyota faced many of the same issues I was, although for different historical reasons. They resorted to a radical conclusion from ancient Japanese philosophy: What if they treated their employees like people? What if managers believed that things could always be better? What if they gave room for their employees to pursue continuous improvement in themselves and their work?

The philosophy is called Kaizen, or continuous improvement, and it’s deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, responsible for encouraging workers to strive for personal and professional growth.

After more digging, I found multiple studies reporting the same thing: put people first and watch your company thrive, whether it’s an automotive factory floor or a corporate office. Here’s how I incorporated Kaizen into workplace settings and how you can do the same.

Drop mura, muda, and muri

Toyota expanded its Kaizen work philosophy to encompass getting rid of mura, muri, and muda, which are inconsistency, overburden, and waste, respectively. To combat quiet quitting, I found it effective to adopt the same policy.

The three are often comingled. For example, there was a lot of mura, or inconsistency, in the development of employees. One new hire told me how her onboarding process was fragmented and disjointed and how difficult it was for her to make sure her progress was keeping up with expectations. She also flagged that she was taught how to use a technology we’d moved away from—a prime example of muda, or waste. Finally, after onboarding, she was left to her own devices, given an objective but little guidance or feedback on how to reach it—overburdening, or muri.

In true Toyota fashion, I decided to take her feedback as an excuse to revisit and standardize the entire employee development strategy. I revamped the onboarding process to eliminate extraneous tech and also asked my team to justify why every meeting we had was necessary. I worked with my HR team to design our in-person offices to allow more deep work, hoping this would help employees feel like they could get more done, continuously improving themselves and their work.

This didn’t solve every single issue, of course. But an essential pillar of Kaizen is allowing room for your own improvement, not just trying to make everyone around you improve, with the knowledge that this is a career-long process, not a single switch.

Solicit feedback from experts

I find myself frequently coming back to this quote from retired Toyota executive Deryl Sturdevant: “Senior executives who are considering lean management…should start by recognizing that they will need to be comfortable giving up control.” (Lean management is Toyota’s application of Kaizen to the manufacturing floor.)

When my ideas ran out, and the problem still wasn’t fully resolved, I decided the time had come to give up control. Instead of just issuing directives, I solicited feedback and advice from my peers and employees. They came up with ideas I never could have imagined.

For example, one of my direct employees reminded me that we’d become trusted colleagues because we’d spent many happy hours together socially relaxing in Menlo Park. He suggested we try to recapture that spirit by sending wine to people’s homes and organizing a sommelier to attend a Zoom call and have a team wine tasting. I can tell you attendance and engagement for that particular meeting was high.

As a leader, sometimes Kaizen means allowing others to solve the problem.

Trust your employees to know where change is needed

If you truly want to combat quiet quitting by pursuing a philosophy of continuous improvement, sometimes you need to step back and just give people the tools to improve without breathing down their necks. The people closest to the work will have the best ideas.

For example, did you know that when workers go remote, they typically reinvest 40% of their commute time back to their job? CEOs demanding that employees return to the office to get more work done are revealing how little they trust their employees, even though data shows employees want to work productively. The office is better for certain tasks, and this should be the basis for in-office work policies.

When you trust employees, they are more willing to continue working on improving themselves and the company. I am surprised at how radical an idea it is. But I truly believe that when you make well-being, comfort, and trust the center of your work experience, your employees reward you by staying engaged.

Help employees adopt Kaizen by removing wasteful meetings and setting up workspaces that encourage deep work, collaboration work, or whatever kind of work you’re trying to foster. Set them up to succeed by valuing their time and commitment to the company. If you want more engagement and what you’re doing isn’t working, try something new; Don’t keep waving a threatening stick.

Continuous improvement in all directions can combat quiet quitting

Continuous improvement means just that—continuous. You can’t “do” Kaizen and fix the problem. You have to implement the philosophy and then keep shifting the goalposts to ensure you continuously improve.

It’s tempting for many leaders to think that adopting Kaizen means only asking employees to improve themselves. This approach is doomed to fail unless you, as the leader, adopt the policy yourself, too. You must also create a positive and supportive work environment conducive to continuous improvement and growth.

For any leaders struggling with a disengaged workforce, I challenge us to look inside ourselves first and identify where we can improve—and in what direction we can continue improving.

This article originally appeared in Quartz.

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