There are many approaches to product management, and every organization tends to breed its flavour of leading product. For many years, I have been thinking deeply about my core values and which ones withstood the test of time as I worked on different teams and businesses.

During our recent trip to Japan, I was dumbfounded by the amount of respect every single person seems to have towards their craft. Whether it’s a shopkeeper, artisanal craftsperson or a barista, everyone seemed to take their role in society extremely seriously. Not only that, but there was also a sense of progression, of continuous improvement at what they did. I came back from that trip with a deep respect for a culture that could breed such professionalism.

Some research on Japanese culture led me to the concepts of kaizen and monozukuri, or continuous improvement and craftsmanship, that seem to be at the root of this approach to work. Popularized by Toyota, kaizen seems mostly prevalent in manufacturing. However, I found that most of the kaizen and monozukuri core values translate well to my personal philosophy of product management and team leadership.

What is Monozukuri?

Monozukuri is at the heart of the Japanese work ethic. A simple translation would be craftsmanship, and the idea that the craftsperson puts a piece of themselves into everything they create. Monozukuri is also about striving for perfection. Japanese culture takes pride in adopting things they didn’t invent and perfecting them to their absolute prime. Japanese whiskey is a good example of this, and we’ve also seen it with the third-wave coffee shops during our trip to Japan. We visited roasters that elevated coffee-making to an almost spiritual experience. But this is not for marketing, they do it because they operate in the monozukuri spirit.

What is Kaizen?

Kaizen is essentially a group of core values designed to improve efficiency in manufacturing environments. It was adopted by Toyota and used to effectively reduce waste, and increase production efficiency and quality, while keeping workers happy. Core tenets of kaizen translate well to information work:

  • Know Your Customer: Understand who your customer is and how they use your product.
  • Let It Flow: Spend time on perfecting your corner of the workplace, reducing waste and improving efficiency.
  • Go to Gemba (The Real Place): Sounds cryptic, but it’s actually simple: Leaders and managers must be hands-on, using the product and being able to practice the craft.
  • Empower People: Every team member should have the power to impact change on the end product, and bring ideas to the table.
  • Be Transparent: Leaders should practice open communication, and data should be used to clearly track performance.

In my opinion, these ideas are also at the root of the best practices in product management and team leadership. I believe that internalizing them and helping your team members understand them would go a long way towards building better products and end-user experiences. Japanese culture is the proof that it works.