By Rieva Lesonsky

Are you familiar with kaizen? This Japanese word refers to the philosophy of “continuous improvement” first developed in the 1940s. By making small, incremental changes within a small business on a daily basis, continuous improvement streamlines operations, improves quality and makes organizations more competitive. It’s a philosophy implemented by leading global companies including Toyota—but you can use it, too.

In a previous post, I shared how Toyota is sharing its continuous improvement strategy, the Toyota Production System, to small manufacturers, nonprofits and community organizations to improve their operations and their lives. Whether you’re a manufacturer, retailer or service provider, every small business owner’s biggest challenge is how to be more productive in a given day.  Even though it’s normally used for manufacturing processes, continuous improvement can help. Here’s how to get started.

Toyota_Effect_LogoAnalyze. Start by documenting what you do in a typical day. You can use simple time tracking tools, such as Toggl, to help you. Do this for at least a week and assess what areas seem to be causing stumbling blocks for you. For example, are you getting tied up in emails all day? Do you have too many meetings to attend?

Involve the entire team. Part of continuous improvement is seeing how our actions affect others in the company. By getting the entire team involved, you not only create better solutions, but also help everyone become more efficient. For example, if you’re spending too much time in meetings, you’re probably not available enough to employees who need you for other purposes. Ask your employees how your actions affect their ability to do their jobs. Do they need to wait for you to approve work or provide input before they can take action? If so, you may be causing bottlenecks that are slowing everyone down.

Brainstorm. Both individually and with your team, think of ways that you can become more productive by eliminating the problems you’ve identified. Keep in mind that your goal is to get to the root causes of problems. For example, do you get into the office late every morning because you’re up until all hours of the night answering emails? If so, perhaps you need to set a cut-off time after which you don’t work so you can get more rest and be more effective in the morning.

Make small changes. Continuous improvement means making small, but daily adjustments to get better results. Don’t try to overhaul everything all at once. Begin by seeking low-hanging fruit — small, easy changes you can make to get quick results. This will help your kaizen efforts gain momentum.

Evaluate. Continuously assess the results of your improvements using specific measurements. For example, if you’re spending three hours a day on email, measuring how much you are able to shorten this time will show you if your kaizen efforts are working. Also evaluate the effects that your improvements have on others around you. Perhaps by delegating some of your email to your assistant, you’re able to work on more important projects, approve things faster and make your whole company more productive.

Keep it up. Continuous improvement is, as the name implies, an ongoing process. You can always make your business better and yourself more productive. Plus, as you see the results of kaizen in your business and your life, you won’t want to stop!

Want to learn more about how continuous improvement can help you and your business be more productive? Check out Toyota’s recently released mini-film series “The Toyota Effect,” which documents how kaizen transformed one small manufacturer’s operations.

This post was created in partnership with Toyota. All opinions expressed in the post are my own and not those of Toyota.