What is Kaizen?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on December 22nd, 2011

Kyoko Tsukamoto, who has just taken over as editor of Total Swim Magazine, the e-zine published by TI-Japan, asked me to contribute an article for her first issue. I was so pleased to be asked, I volunteered to write an article for every issue. I’ll publish each of them here too. Here’s the January installment:

It feels slightly odd to be an American, writing for Japanese readers (and swimmers) about a philosophy – Kaizen – that originated in Japan. But Kaizen has changed my life, and for that I’m grateful to Japan.

When I started swimming, at 10, my vision reached only to the other end of the pool, and how I would get there.

When I joined a swim team, at 14, my vision extended to the end of the week, when I would swim my next race.

When I began coaching, at 21, my vision now stretched to the end of the season, when the hard work of six months training would be rewarded by new best times for my swimmers, and perhaps a championship banner for the team.

But at about age 40, when I began coaching adults—especially adults who were new to swimming–my vision began to extend to limitless horizons and possibilities. I didn’t realize this had a name, Kaizen, or was a widely respected philosophy in Japan that grew out of business, but became applied to ‘the art of living well.’

My horizons grew because my adult students had longer horizons themselves. When I coached younger people, their swimming goals were always to get through today, this week, this season. But adult students took up swimming in order live better, healthier and happier, with no endpoint in sight.

Kaizen is endless; Kaizen is this moment.

The paradox of Kaizen is that the way it helps you think in terms of limitless possibility is by focusing your attention on the potential of this day and this moment. Kaizen Swimming is not built upon any great or impressive action, but upon a very small action only you will notice—a single beautiful stroke . . . repeated with loving attention a few thousand times in the course of an hour.

You begin practice with a plan to find some almost-hidden aspect of your stroke that, during the next hour, you’ll perform better than you ever have before. No one else will notice your improvement, but you will feel it because you give it such keen and unwavering attention. Before you know it, an hour is over and it’s been the best hour of your day.

And that is the greater wonder of Kaizen. Before I embraced the Kaizen spirit, during each day’s practice I thought I was training for a happy moment three or six months in the future when my hard work brought a best time.  But Kaizen, while showing me a life of boundless possibility, has also taught me to make each day special, and not wait for happiness sometime in the future.


7 Responses to “What is Kaizen?”

  1. Suzanne says:

    Terry, what about resurrection of the Total Swim eZine that used to go out to US readers?

  2. Judy says:

    this happened in my workout last night without me even realizing it! Thanks for the wonderful words of inspiration and kaizen spirit.

  3. Judy – Once you realize it and recognize how transformative and transcendent it can be, you begin to seek it. Then it takes over from the usual workaday goals as the thing that draws you to the pool.

  4. We’ve discussed and I strongly believe we should. The info from the survey will help us refine our editorial goals, content, perhaps list of regular ‘departments.’

  5. Steve Hops says:

    What a great way to start, and finish, a year. I was first introduced to the kaizen approach to incremental improvement in the business context, 20 years ago. While our western culture nurtures and develops more creativity, we can learn much about patience from the east. Terry, your books, videos and clinics have made not only a huge difference in my swimming but by extension improved my life. Thank you and Merry Christmas to and your’s.

  6. Celeste says:

    Dear Terry,
    Thanks for reminding me why I started learning TI I’m the first place. All that kaizen moments got diluted when I started training for an event. To a point where my life seemed to revolve around nothing but training, throwing my life out of balance- I’d fogotten all abt being mindful. Somehow, something inside me felt amiss. I’m thankful for this post for reminding me to get my act back in balance through mindful living in and outside the water.

  7. Steve Hops says:

    Good thought here Celeste. Balance in all.

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