Making Japanese Kaizen and American Individualism work together in the Village

If you have read my short bio, you know that I have some experience with the Japanese culture and speak fluent Japanese.  In the late 70’s, Japanese management philosophies were popular in America as our auto, electronics and optics industries were being decimated by Japanese competition.

Kaizen is a key word in Japanese philosophy.  A direct translation from the Chinese/Japanese characters “Kai” and “Zen” is “change” and “good” or in other words, to transform for the better.  As with most things Japanese, there is a deeper meaning, hinting of a unique, underlying culture.  To understand, one needs to add a few more words to the translation.  These would include patience, persistence, small, incremental and harmonious.
Deeply imbedded in the Japanese psyche is an understanding that perfection is achievable, but only in incredibly small, incremental steps, accomplished through cooperation.  Nothing great is ever achieved by a single genius in isolation or in one magnificent technical or ideological leap.

Dyed-in-the-wool American that I am, it’s hard to practice this philosophy.  By nature, I tend to be visionary, impetuous, strong-willed and impatient.  We Americans pride ourselves, above all, on rugged individualism, self-sufficiency, independence and personal initiative.  We idealize strong-willed individuals, while the Japanese idolize an amorphous group who toil upward silently in the night, never seeking or receiving personal credit but collectively achieving greatness through an uncountable series of small innovations.  That’s kaizen, or change(s) for the better.  While American heroes are individual people, the Japanese draw their heroes from nature – ants and bees.

Polar opposites, there is genius in BOTH Japanese and American world views.  Where quick, bold action is required, Americans win.  Where absolute excellence of quality, nearing perfection, is required, the Japanese approach excels.

Is it possible to practice both in a symbiotic balance?  That is the challenge of the Village on Sewanee Creek.  We are striving for a balance between opposites.
Consider our motto, “In harmony with nature and people” One might say it has a Japanese, Zen-like ring to it.  A number of Villagers even work together harmoniously to raise bees.       Bzzzzz, sounds like “nature and people in harmony”, doesn’t it?  I actually hadn’t thought of the symbolic nature of our beekeeping collaboration till just now.

On the other hand, a top stated value for the Village is self-sufficiency, independence and personal liberty.  One practical application of that value is the absolute requirement for private property ownership. Within one’s personal sphere of control, ownership begets personal accountability.

On yet another hand, we believe that collective, cooperative work optimizes effectiveness, efficiency and positive social relationships.  We observe this in action nearly every week when we rotate projects, one Villager sponsoring and leading the project and the rest chipping in.  A few weeks ago, it was my turn.  My project was framing up a new car port.  It is instantly clear as you struggle to lift both ends of a heavy beam into place, level it, and secure it, that a team of 2 or more beats a single laborer no matter how skilled or determined.  Where there is clear leadership and willing follower-ship, once again there is harmony as well as efficient achievement.

Both Leaders and followers are important in any task involving more than one person.  But, we find that achieving long-term harmony requires that all who want to lead must have a fair opportunity to do so.  By regularly trading project leadership, each participant grows and is built along with the building projects we undertake.  Each participant has an opportunity to improve their people and relationship skills including both how to lead and how to follow.

Each also has the opportunity to express their creative side on the property they own and control.  That brings out the best of our American spirit of ingenuity, vision, and can-do attitude.

One of the big lessons I have been forced to learn is that quality takes time and continuous improvement.  Through the contributions of many, both in physical labor and inspired ideas for improvements, each day is a challenge to make things a little better.  In the Village, we enjoy the pleasure of seeing our personal labors translated into physical improvements before our eyes.  No doubt, it’s nice to be able to call up a professional and order a nice improvement done.  But there is a special satisfaction that comes only by being able to say, “I did that”.  Even better if you can say, “We did that.”  At the end of a productive day, working together on something that will be yours for a long time, the tired smiles are priceless.

If this is the kind of harmonious, productive life you have always dreamed of, drop me a line here.

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