“Wisdom” and “Continuous Improvement” in the Toyota Way

Toyota’s Japanese documents and their English versions often mean different things. Recently, looking at the Japanese version of The Toyota Way 2001, I was surprised to find that what is translated into English as “Continuous Improvement” is “Chie to Kaizen” (知恵と改善), which means “Wisdom and Continuous Improvement.” In the English version, “Wisdom” was not only dropped from the main header, it appears nowhere.

This left me wondering about the following issues:

  1. What do they mean by “wisdom”?
  2. Why was it lost in translation?

On the other hand, the meaning of Kaizen (改善) in The Toyota Way 2001, is explained the same way in English and Japanese, and it does not match the most common usage of “continuous improvement.”


I crowd-sourced answers by asking the questions in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn, where many members are Toyota alumni, and received the following:

  • James Pryor: “wisdom refers to ‘having experience with’.”
  • Frederick Stimson Harriman: “知恵 describes the ‘figuring out’ part of this thought process. One might call it ‘engineering’ or ‘creativity’.”
  • Prasad Velaga wonders “whether it means judicious selection of improvement projects.”
  • Gregory Cornett: “Wisdom might possibly mean ‘Common Sense’.”

Since everyone was taking guesses, I added my own. Looking up chie (知恵 ) in my dictionary, I found Wisdom, Sense, Sagacity, Intelligence, Resourcefulness. My read on it in the Toyota Way 2001 context is as follows:

  • If you can execute a task, you have a skill.
  • If you can combine and sequence tasks to get a job done, you have know-how.
  • If you understand the principles behind the tools and methods you are using and can adapt them as needed in new circumstances, you have wisdom.

For example, those who apply Lean tools by rote may have know-how but not wisdom. My guess is that, in this context, chie refers to the wisdom, in the above sense, accumulated by the Toyoda/Toyota organization since Sakichi Toyoda got interested in looms.

After some back-and-forth on the subject with Frederick Stimson-Harriman and Gary Stewart on LinkedIn, I settled on the notion that, in this context, wisdom is resourcefulness due to the assimilation of accumulated knowledge. It differs from common sense, which is resourcefulness too, but in a field where you have no specialized knowledge.

What it is really saying is that every employee, regardless of rank, should spend part of the work time on improvement, and, when moving on to another assignment should leave the workplace, department, or division performing better than he or she found it. Whatever you are put in charge of, you are not just responsible for running it, but for making it better.

Helen Jackson thinks I “hit this on the head.” But she thinks it is omitted in English because it is “so obvious that it doesn’t need stating.” But, if it doesn’t need stating, why did the authors state it, and so prominently? If you reduce The Toyota Way to two phrases, and the first word of the first one is “Wisdom,” it’s pretty prominent.

Continuous Improvement

Incidentally, in 知恵と改善 (Chie to Kaizen), “Kaizen” is ambiguous. When translated as
“Continuous Improvement” it most commonly refers to small changes to work methods, conceived and implemented by the people who do the work, as opposed to radical change or innovation. In The Toyota Way 2001, however, it includes all forms of improvement, regardless of scope, including kaikaku (改革), “Continuous” refers to doing it all the time, not doing it incrementally.