63. Kaizen Budo

Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

 –Vince Lombardi sensei of NFL Football

One of the things I try to constantly instill in my students is the realization that simply practicing a kata over and over again doesn’t necessarily make you better, if what you are doing is flawed to begin with. You are simply repeating bad technique and making it harder to improve past  the level of mediocrity.

None of us, including myself, is perfect, but the attitude one should take is to never be satisfied with what you are doing, even while acknowledging perhaps that you have moved closer to the ever-moving and actually unattainable goal of perfection.

In Japan, this attitude of constant striving is considered common sense. In America, I’m not so sure a lot of martial arts students get this. This is unfortunate, because in actuality, America taught Japan a lot about this attitude through the concept of kaizen, which was first an American idea.

After World War II, the American Occupation forces entered a Japan which had an infrastructure and industrial base that had been devastated by aerial bombardment, deprivation and decades of bad political decisions. Like Germany and most of Europe, Japan was an economic basket case. The Allies had to come to a decision: punish the former Axis Powers for an indeterminate amount of time and financial reimbursements, as at the end of World War I (which caused resentment and economic hardships for the Germans, and fueled the nationalistic fervor of the Nazi Party) or lend a hand to former enemies, help pull them up and into a Democratic nationhood, with the ability to stand on their own economically.  Economic prosperity and democratic government, it was argued, would be a better bet for world peace than punishing the losers.

Luckily, the United States chose the latter option. The Marshall Plan in Europe helped rebuild Europe into a prosperous, thriving, continent, with the major players of World War II at peace for decades. In Japan, the United States poured in money, expertise and US government contracts to help Japanese companies rebuild.

Japan had previously managed to achieve some amount of industrial strength, enough to supply a war machine that beat back the Allied Powers in Asia for a couple of years, before American economic might geared up for wartime production. A cultural inheritance of a kind of Japanese version of the “Protestant work ethic” and relative internal political stability compared to the rest of Asia helped a lot. There already was a culture of excellence when it came to various arts and crafts that transferred easily to modern industry. But as Japan bootstrapped its way back to economic stability, it was having a hard time managing to reach world-class quality for its products. I still remember back when “Made in Japan” meant cheap, shoddy goods. Tin-can toys that fell apart after a few days of rough play. Cheap cars that rusted through quickly.

Enter American industrial advisors. The most influential among them was W. Edwards Deming, a statistician who stressed constant improvement throughout the whole industrial process.

Deming and other American advisors taught Japanese companies how to enforce quality control that America had already (unevenly) implemented during the War and thereafter. The Japanese took to it with a vengeance, to a point now that in the 1960s and onwards, “Made in Japan” became more synonymous with quality than with cheap products. Thanks to his contributions, Japanese companies still vie for a yearly Deming award, bestowed on a company that best exemplifies quality control and continuous improvement.

The process of constant improvement is called the Deming Cycle, or Shewhart Cycle, or PDCA. Toyota, the Japanese car manufacturer, calls it the Toyota Production System, which has been adopted in large part by American car manufacturers. Besides the concept of “just in time” inventories, Wikipedia identifies the cycle as having the following characteristics:

  • Standardize an operation and activities.
  • Measure the standardized operation (find cycle time and amount of in-process inventory)
  • Gauge measurements against requirements
  • Innovate to meet requirements and increase productivity
  • Standardize the new, improved operations
  • Continue cycle ad infinitum

This constant tinkering and assessment is also called kaizen; the striving for success in a quantifiable, repeatable method.

Kaizen means never being satisfied with production and results. You always strive for excellence, and better quality. When you reach a certain level, you reassess and try to improve to a higher level.

Budo practice should ideally also reflect kaizen thinking, just as the best practice of any athlete that excels in nay sport will demonstrate. Vince Lombardi of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers knew it. Constant practice is imperative. But constantly improving the practice and the techniques are also important, because your opponent will also be practicing and ratcheting up his own abilities.

Here’s a typical problem I have with some students. I demonstrate a technique. They struggle to grasp it. When they reach some semblance of the technique, I will offer positive reinforcement, such as “Yes, that’s sort of like it,” or “You get the idea.”

For the good students, that positive reinforcement motivates them to work even harder to improve their technique. “Good enough” is never good enough. For some students, however, they get hard-wired into doing it that one way, and don’t improve. “Good enough” for them remains “good enough.”

They quickly hit a wall and get stuck. Or worse, they regress to bad habits. Negative reinforcement (“You’re an idiot!”) doesn’t work very well, in martial arts or puppy training. But it has to come down to the student himself or herself to take responsibility for constantly striving to improve, like a star athlete who is constantly trying to improve his/her speed, skill and strength.

Since my own dojo is not-for-profit, and it doesn’t do tournaments or contests, there is no monetary incentive or lure of fame. There is only the training, and only the striving for improvement. So kaizen in budo is, in itself, a major goal of the training.  You train to get better for the sake of getting better, not so much to win a caged ring match or make a whole lot of prize money.

The satisfaction that comes with constantly upping your game should be reward enough, more so than staying only at one level and not seeking to improve because that level, however low it may be, is just competent enough.

That requires a kind of mental fortitude. I find that practitioners who are more capable tend to improve because they learned to internalize this kind of kaizen attitude with whatever they do: be it in their work, in school, in their daily life. It’s not like they’re manic about it. But if they do something, they think about it. Then they think, “How can I improve what’s already okay to something better than that?” The mentally lazy ones just stick with one level and don’t budge much from year to year.

I’m personally somewhat forgiving of students who don’t improve much. I’m not a naturally gifted physical athlete myself, and I have to always work at learning a new technique. My budo class is, as I noted, also not for tournament or professional purposes. So I can’t push students too hard. On the other hand, I know some koryu teachers who will throw a fit if their students don’t show signs of mental activity or internalized self-reflection.

In tea, there is something called a hanseikai meeting after a major tea demonstration or gathering. The leaders of the chakai, or tea gathering, meet with the officers of our local tea organization. They present a report on the chakai. What seemed to work well, what went wrong, what could be improved. The report is duly noted and the lessons learned are conveyed to the next group that will take charge of a chakai. In that way, the hanseikai is a kind of quality control discussion circle, constantly trying to improve the chakai. In that way, each succeeding chakai hopefully gets better and better with time. The leaders of the chakai themselves have to self-reflect and perceive what the strengths and weaknesses of the chakai were.

Similarly, in budo, it is not just the responsibility of the teacher to point out where you need to improve. It is up to the individual student to take those observations to heart, and to also think about his own areas of strengths and weaknesses, and to have the self-awareness to work on them constantly. Self-awareness is a key ingredient in self-improvement.  It’s not all up to the teacher to make you improve.

It’s basically up to the students themselves to do kaizen budo in their own minds.


7 thoughts on “63. Kaizen Budo

  1. Each breath is our last… until we get another one… and so on, and so on….. How we spend them is up to us. We can be inspired by others, etc. but what we decide each instant is up to us. I have chosen to take part in activities that constantly remind me of this and forces me to “test” my “reality” in ways that keep me relatively aware of what’s what. On the razor’s edge as much as possible…. We must train in ways that are always showing us when we begin to deviate from what “works” along with others that are doing their best to “show us the mirror.” It is, to be sure, extremely difficult to do and no one can do it a hundred percent all of the time. We can only try our best, each breath.

    – C. Clark

  2. As a deshi, I try to take the whole “be like water” maxim to heart in many cases. True that it will take a long time for the river to polish a stone. But as the river, what else do I have going on?

    You make a good point, too, about how most Americans seem to have forgotten about the notion of constant improvement. It does seem to be more prevalent among martial artists and athletes and this makes me wonder just how many ordinary citizens apply the same mindset in their day-to-day.

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