The Spirit of Kaizen

"When you need to make a change, there are two basic strategies you can use: innovation and kaizen. Innovation calls for a radical, immediate rethink of the status quo. Kaizen, on the other hand, asks for nothing other than small, doable steps toward improvement."

- The Spirit of Kaizen, page 7

The idea of change is often met with mixed emotions ranging from mild discomfort to panicked anxiety. What if change didn’t have to be such an uphill battle? What if taking smaller, not larger, steps were more likely to produce success? Little steps are precisely what doctor and professor Robert Maurer, author of The Spirit of Kaizen, believes. He says that little steps are often preferable to disruptive changes because they are not only easier but also more effective.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Take Small Steps

"A kaizen approach asks you to take small steps toward your goal. These steps are so small that they may seem useless, but that’s why they work."
- The Spirit of Kaizen, page 18

How do you build a lifelong habit of exercise when everything you’ve tried has failed? Maybe your efforts are still too large. Have you tried exercising just one minute a day? A minute? Yep. No, that is not a typo. Maurer explains that kaizen is so “simple and painless that people tend to dismiss it.”

The idea behind kaizen, meaning good change in Japanese, became popular during World War II, when the US industry needed to transition from manufacturing consumer goods to war materials. At its heart kaizen is the idea of continuous incremental improvement. Rather than dramatically changing their operations and disrupting production, factories instead focused on targeting hundreds of small things to improve.

The author explains that there are two approaches for dealing with change: innovation and kaizen. Innovation demands sweeping broad adjustments, different paradigms, and different approaches. Kaizen, on the other end of the spectrum, focuses on tiny, almost imperceptible steps towards a change.

Small improvements help bypass our biological responses to change. We are built to resist change, we like our routines. (I ate the same thing for lunch every weekday for over a year.) Our brains throw up red flags when we demand massive change in behavior. Occasionally, through sheer determination we can muscle our way past the brain’s alerts. However, that is often the exception rather than the rule as thousands of unused gym memberships illustrate.

Kaizen’s small steps slip past our brains unnoticed. When these small steps are repeated consistently over time the change is made and the brains alert systems remain undisturbed.

It sounds easy, so why isn’t kaizen more popular? Kaizen is the tortoise in a culture where hares receive the bulk of the attention and praise. What can you do to apply kaizen? It starts with your questions.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Ask Small Questions

"For reasons that nobody truly understands, the brain cannot reject small questions. Any small question, especially one you ask repeatedly, prompts your brain to begin its own Google search."
- The Spirit of Kaizen, page 99

When confronted with a problem, we demand our brains produce a miraculous solution, a brilliant stroke of inspiration provided instantly. Unfortunately, most often, we run into road blocks, stymied for any solutions.

Instead, Maurer suggests we scale our questions down, focusing on the smallest improvement that we could immediately implement. He explains that “our brains are also designed to respond to fear by shutting down access to the mental resources we need to create change.” Demanding an immediate answer to reducing expenses by 25% is akin to asking the captain of a sinking ship to explain the second law of thermodynamics. Under stress our brains are strained; creative reserves are walled off, fight or flight mode kicks in, and creatively solving a problem is a concern that doesn’t register.

Conversely, asking small questions daily provides the coals to stoke the fire of ideas, all while bypassing the brain’s fear of recognition. Don’t expect immediate answers, give your brain some time to work on the problem. Small questions naturally lead to small implantable ideas, which is the idea behind kaizen. If you want to increase your income, asking how I can double my income will create very different answers than what I can do today to earn an extra dollar. Figuring out how to earn such a small amount seems trivial, but helps to shift your thinking so that eventually you arrive at the desired result.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Don’t Streetlight

"…we all tend to look for answers in the places where the looking is easiest."
- The Spirit of Kaizen, page 159

When seeking improvement we tend to favor the low hanging fruit. There is a story where a policeman sees a man searching the ground under a spotlight. The policeman asks the man what he is doing. The man indicates he is looking for his keys which he dropped some distance away but he is searching here because the lighting is better. Scientist David Freedman explains that we often tend to look for answers in the places where the looking is the easiest, not where we are likely to have the best results. If we work to focus on the efforts that can provide more improvement rather than by their level of ease, we will have more success.

The Spirit of Kaizen helped me see change in a different light. Maurer’s explanations of kaizen provided a smaller perspective to how I can change my behavior and solve problems that I wouldn’t have previously considered. For example, I am left handed and writing with many pens is a chore. Your left hand pushes the ball across the page rather than let it trail behind when used with the right hand. I tried a number of different pens to alleviate my frustrations. Nonetheless, a recent batch of more expensive pens have proven more frustrating than usual, resulting in more irritation than ink on the page. After a discussion of the book with my wife she picked up a pack of pens for a dollar. After a few days of use I haven’t had any problems with the pens. In fact, they write better than most of their more expensive counterparts. Now this was a simple small step, but it has produced a positive change. Kaizen and my wife helped me learn that simple solutions should not be disfavored based solely on their level of complexity.

In the comments let us know what small steps you could take today to improve something in your life.

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Jakob Browning

ABOUT Jakob Browning

I am Jakob Browning. This fall I'll start my final year of law school. I enjoy running long distances. I have three younger brothers who will all probably be taller than me soon...
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