What Toyota Teaches Us About Relationships: Can We Survive Utterly Alone?
Recently, my partner and I had a discussion on our next professional and travel steps. The topic that also came up was how our busy and — in the eyes of many — “unstable” lifestyle has been affecting our relationship.
We met on the road. I lived in Asia back then; he was just passing through. And yet, beginning soon after our first meeting, we kept moving around the world together. Not only did we become travel buddies. We became lovers and startup teammates as well. And today, after more than 4 years of fighting side by side, I dare to say that we are each other’s best friends.
But… it’s not always been easy. And saying not easy is possibly a colossal euphemism, because ‘adventure,’ that’s not only fun, laugh, and good food. That’s also tears, fights, miscommunications, and reproaches. Tons of compromises. Spending 24 hours a day together, for weeks, in less than comfortable conditions. Learning about the needs of a completely different human being. Learning to understand that a single person cannot fully meet all your own needs and stay sane. Learning to respect each other’s boundaries.
So when I raised the question of our common future and our further life together during the last conversation of such kind that we had, my partner said, “Remember when you told me about those people in Toyota and how they have been improving step by step? We will do it exactly like them. We will just improve our communication and our relationship a little bit every day. And it will all be good.”
It took me only a fraction of a second to go from utter confusion to amazement. It was genius!
What he was referring to was ‘KAIZEN’, a Japanese concept of continuous improvement — no matter how small — which became famous after the World War II when it was implemented by Japanese manufacturers, notably Toyota, as a part of their efforts to rebuild the country’s economy. The general objective was quite simple: improve the quality of products, reduce expenses, and boost productivity.
In 1950, an American engineer and statistician William Edwards Deming delivered a speech to a group of Japanese managers and presented a set of principles that later turned into the Kaizen philosophy. In short, these were based on the idea that improving the manufacturing process (rather than focusing exclusively on the product itself) — by implementing statistical methods to narrow down variations and reduce abnormalities — will in itself reduce the costs, since there will be fewer mistakes to fix.
Today, Kaizen thinking is not only being embraced by various organizations to improve processes across departments and to empower workers on all levels, so that they report problems and suggest new solutions without delay, but also by individuals who wish to make continuous, incremental improvements in the relevant areas of their lives. Because to make big changes, immediately and quickly, is scary, and the stakes are high. Yet, if you commit to making a teeny tiny step forward every single day (in whatever matter is important to you right now), you have nothing to lose. If the adjustments you are trying to implement don’t work, you can always take a few steps back, reconsider, and move on with a modified solution.
Is it then possible to apply the theory of Kaizen to our social relationships?
And should we even care?
Shouldn’t we simply avoid relationships that are difficult to handle and settle only for those that make us feel comfortable right away?
An easy relationship doesn’t exist. If you don’t water the plants you keep at home, if you don’t provide them with enough sunlight or fresh air, and if you don’t replace their soil here and there, they will eventually die. The same applies to your relationships. If you don’t nourish them by spending time with the other person, by active listening, by meeting their needs, by providing encouragement and support, or simply by making them feel their true selves when they are around you, the mutual connection will eventually wither and die as well.
Besides, the equation of our mental and physical health cannot be solved if the social dimension of our life is missing. Only when we take into account our mind, our body, AND our relationships, can we experience the state of harmony and wellbeing.
HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS ➾ HEALTHY MIND ➾ HEALTHY BODY
With our mind, body, and relationships healing gradually, our spirituality, in the sense of following the purpose of our existence, will gently start revealing itself as well. Simultaneously, the level of our overall energy will rise, enabling us to grow, lead, create, innovate, and all in all to live as fully and as happily as we have always wished for.
If we’re stuck in toxic relationships, we can’t progress. If we avoid relationships altogether, we can’t thrive.
The society of the 21st century celebrates and encourages individuality. Women don’t need men, men don’t need women. Most of one’s needs can be satisfied with a few clicks on the internet and a generous credit card.
Being single is not a stigma. On the contrary, staying in a long-term exclusive relationship endangers one’s right of choice.
We have hundreds of friends in the virtual world, and only a few in the real one. To unfriend someone on Facebook is effortless. To have an unpleasant conversation face to face hurts. Talking to our family over Skype is easier and cheaper than visiting them in person once in a while.
We still long for love, affection, support, and loyalty. However, if they’re not easy to come by, we prioritize professional achievements, personal freedom, and material comfort, since only then can we consider ourselves successful. And success, as every kid knows, is the one and only measurement of one’s worth.
… Or is it?
If it is really the case, why do we keep hearing of suicides, substance abuse, eating disorders, or mental illnesses of “successful” people so damn often?
People need other people. That’s how we are made. Even though we do not always have the perfect alternative at hand.
All in all, the human need for social interaction is too strong to beat, no matter how much we’re convinced that we would be better off without others making our lives difficult. Having said that, and going back to the fact that social relationships are hard work in the first place, what is it that we can do while following the principles of continuous, incremental improvement?
SMALL ACTS OF KINDNESS
Every day, do something nice for someone you care about. No matter how small. And remember not to ask anything back.
KILL THE JUDGEMENTS
Become the most comfortable person to be around. Accept people as they are. Provide them with a safe space to breathe freely.
GET IN TOUCH FIRST
Pick up the phone. Get on the bus. Buy a postcard. Let the other person know that they still have a place in your life.
ASK GOOD QUESTIONS
Show the other person that they truly matter to you by asking personal, detailed, and relevant questions about their worlds.
LISTEN WITH OPEN EARS
Close your internal dialogue. Stop checking your phone. Don’t look around. When a person talks to you, give them your fullest attention.
EXTEND A HELPING HAND
Don’t wait for them to come to you. Now and then, ask them: Is there something I can help you with right now?
TEACH AND LEARN
Share whatever you’re good at with others. Or the other way around, if you spot someone else’s special talent, let them teach you something new.
SMILE, SMILE, SMILE
Smiling is free. Share it with your co-workers. Share it with people on the street. Share it with your Uber driver. Share it with people who seem tired, annoyed, or even hostile.
Remember again that the point is not to expect immediate returns. The point is to build up your long-term social support net, little by little, day by day.
Because the more you share, and the more you give, the more you will, eventually, get back in the future. And if you think you don’t need anyone, I wish you good luck.
If you believe that a person is valuable only if they can provide something useful or pleasurable right off the bat, with small or no investment on your side, you may experience an ugly surprise one day. You may wake up either totally alone, or surrounded by people who are indeed willing to serve your needs, but most probably merely for the sake of their own expectations of what they can get out of you.
Yes, such a pragmatic exchange can be efficient and useful, that’s for sure. We don’t need to care about absolutely everybody. But the only human connections that stand the test of time, that weather even painful hardships, and that help you grow and flourish are those that are mutually fortified with affection, attention, and unconditional acceptance.