Ikigai and Kaizen

In today's competitive world, both in Japan and the West, people are at risk of chasing ikigai only in work contexts, making hatarakigai, work worth doing, their only ikigai source. To avoid this, it may be worth rethinking the Venn diagram of purpose originally created by Andrés Zuzunaga and later modified by Marc Winn to become known as the Ikigai Venn diagram

We know it does not convey the Japanese experience of ikigai, but it does implicitly provide some good advice on how we can understand hatarakigai. The four elements of ‘what you can get paid to do’, ‘what you love’, ‘what you are good at’, and ‘what the world needs’ can help us find (or re-establish) balance between the internal and external motivations to work (not life). 

As with ikigai, while it is not an accurate definition or a model Japanese would use for hatarakigai, clearly ‘hatarakigai’ would be a more culturally appropriate word in the centre of the Western 'ikigai' Venn diagram, and a better focus for the guide books and coaching programs springing up around that framework. Hatarakigai is about the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits of work, which the Venn diagram of Purpose conveys. Ikigai is about your whole life, which hatarakigai is one element of. 


One way we could feel hatarakigai-kan, the feeling of work worth doing, is by leaving the workplace in a better condition than we were in when we arrived. This is the goal of Bob Emiliani, an expert in the practice of kaizen – a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement. 

‘I have a personal vision for kaizen that is to create workplaces that improve human physical and mental health so that people leave work every day in better health than when they arrived. And I truly believe that it is possible for people to leave work in better health than when they arrived through the type of kaizen practice that Mr Nakao teaches. Now, there are lots of different types of kaizen practice that are not as good as integrating the heart, the mind, kaizen and its interaction with other people and business.’

The ‘Mr Nakao’ that Emiliani is referring to is Chihiro Nakao, who developed a style of kaizen called Shingijutsu-kaizen. Shingijutsu means ‘new technologies’, but it would be a mistake to assume  Shingijutsu-kaizen is an approach dedicated to continuous improvement in the realm of technology. According to Emiliani, Shingijutsu-kaizen is 80 or 90 percent human and 10 or 20 percent technical, with one main objective: to make the complex simple.5 

In our podcast discussion, Emiliani shared how human-focused this practice actually is: 

Shingijutsu-kaizen is people-focused kaizen based on “learning by doing.” It is a humanistic approach to kaizen that helps people realise their full potential. Shingijutsu-kaizen helps people develop confidence in themselves, their wisdom, and their capacity to improve. It pushes people to think differently and to not be afraid of making changes.’

An example of Shingijutsu-kaizen is ‘shumilation’. Shumi means ‘hobby’ in Japanese; it is anglicised in a way that evokes the idea of ‘simulation’. As a practice, it involves getting people energised and motivated about making a hobby of trying new things.

‘I think one of the good things about Kaizen is that it makes you feel good that you've utilised your ingenuity to make something better, and you feel good about that. So actually coming to work, and making improvements is a fun thing, it's a good thing to feel good about yourself. When you have those kinds of feelings, you don't stress out.’
kaizen and ikigai

What Emiliani is touching on here is hatarakigai-kan: feeling satisfaction at work because we have used our ingenuity and contributed in a meaningful way. Regardless of how pleasant this sensation can be, Chihiro Nakao warns that ‘Kaizen is for the workplace only. You must never do kaizen at home. You should relax.’ 

I think we can say the same for hatarakigai: It should only be experienced when you are working, and work should only take up a discrete and limited portion of your life. After all, there is so much gai to find in other activities to make a life worth living.