There is a concept that is usually discussed in business schools called Kaizen. It is usually combined with Total Quality Management (TQM), Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, Training Within Industry (TWI), Just-in-Time Manufacturing, Business Process Improvement (BPI) or a host of other quality improvement techniques. While all of these are very similar and share the same roots, Kaizen is one that can easily translate beyond the business world into your personal life.
Kaizen takes a very straightforward approach that focuses on continuous improvement. These aren’t giant innovative steps, they are small, subtle improvements that might not look important by themselves but when combined with thousands of them they produce great results.
Psychologists such as Dr. Robert Maurer understand how effective Kaizen can be and has written several books that dive deep into the Kaizen practice and why it is effective. He points out that the part of the brain responsible for our fight or flight response and for causing fear is the amygdala. He advises in One Small Step Can Change Your Life to “make your questions small, and you reduce the chances of waking the amygdala and arousing debilitating fear.”
The reason that Kaizen and many other improvement methods rely so heavily on small steps isn’t because we are incapable of big innovation. It is because we are wired to look at big changes with skepticism and fear.
We might decide to start working out for 3 hours a day but our body and our mind are really just waiting it out because it won’t last. Eventually we all start to tire and become unmotivated at the extreme effort we put forth with little results.
By looking at very small, systematic changes, Kaizen changes our focus from a big change to a small adjustment. That small adjustment, if done consistently over time, will then become a habit. Once it is a habit then it avoids the fight or flight response and becomes automatic. This also gives us a foundation on which to continue to improve and grow. We can incorporate more once we have a firmly established habit.
Instead of trying to work out for 3 hours, start by committing to 3 minutes of exercise a day. Find a consistent time and make sure you do this until it becomes automatic and easy. Once it is more natural to exercise for 3 minutes than to skip the workout, it becomes easy to add a little more time. By slowly building up to a longer, effective workout time, your body becomes accustomed to the exercise and it feels natural.
The reason that this is so often disregarded is because most people feel that 3 minutes is not enough. As a society we are programmed to want results immediately and have shown over time that we will take extreme risks for this instant success (such as weight loss pills, and crash diets). The 3 minute exercise is the exact opposite of what we tend to do. We tend to go extreme with an inevitable failure looming.
Instead look at the 3 minutes as a starting point. If we take the next 3 months and focus only on the 3 minute exercise we will likely start to form a habit. Then we can take the next 3 months and focus on doing 6 minutes of exercise. Then we can spend 3 months and grow it to 10 minutes and then 15 minutes. Within a year we will have a new habit of exercising for 15 minutes every day.
Combine that with small steps in improved nutrition, parking your car far in the parking lot to get a few more steps, taking the elevator, going to the further bathroom when at work, and maybe doing 10 sit-ups and pushups at night and you will likely see some great results. All of these things by themselves seem too small to matter but combined they can be effective. The point is that you are building better habits and systems in a way that is focused on long term success, not just dropping a few pounds for summer.
I emphasized exercise in this article because it is easy to relate to for most of us who struggle with exercise and weight loss. The reality is that it can easily be incorporated into other aspects of our lives such as budgeting our money, investing, getting more sleep, improving relationships, becoming a better communicator, quitting smoking, writing a book etc.
In fact I would bet that several areas of your lives have already utilized these principles with great success. If you stop and think about your highest level of education you can see that we went through a similar process, except that it was forced on us early on. We started with very basic education and built the habit of going to school to learn. Usually we started with a half day and then moved on to a full day of school. We didn’t start with Trigonometry we started with counting to ten. Each year we built more and more on the foundation until we started to reach a point where we could easily read and understand pages on a book, basic math problems, the history of our country, etc. Imagine taking someone without any education and trying to teach them all of that immediately! It would be overwhelming and impractical. Yet we expect that when we set goals for ourselves.
Kaizen is a very important business principle that focuses on small steps for growth and improvement. But Kaizen can also be an effective way to approach the things in our personal life that we wish to improve and change. Small steps avoids the fear response and allows us to build a habit that can help take us towards long term success!