The Kaizen Way
by Robert Maurer

Read:  2018-01-07, Rating:  7/10.

using very small steps to improve a habit, a process, or product
using very small moments to inspire new products and inventions

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.” —Lao Tzu

Kaizen and innovation are the two major strategies people use to create change. Where innovation demands shocking and radical reform, all kaizen asks is that you take small, comfortable steps toward improvement.

These strategies include:
asking small questions to dispel fear and inspire creativity
thinking small thoughts to develop new skills and habits—without moving a muscle
taking small actions that guarantee success
solving small problems, even when you’re faced with an overwhelming crisis
bestowing small rewards to yourself or others to produce the best results
recognizing the small but crucial moments that everyone else ignores

Why Kaizen Works

All changes, even positive ones, are scary. Attempts to reach goals through radical or revolutionary means often fail because they heighten fear. But the small steps of kaizen disarm the brain’s fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play.

The brain is designed so that any new challenge or opportunity or desire triggers some degree of fear.

the amygdala alerts parts of the body to prepare for action—and our access to the cortex, the thinking part of the brain, is restricted, and sometimes shut down.

large goal ➞ fear ➞ access to cortex restricted ➞ failure
small goal ➞ fear bypassed ➞ cortex engaged ➞ success

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” —Mark Twain

Fear can cause you unconsciously to sabotage your best intentions.

Instead, use times of difficulty to remember that fear is the body’s gift, alerting us to a challenge. The more we care about something, the more we dream, the more fear shows up. Thinking about fear in this way can help us feel less distraught.

Ask Small Questions

Small questions create a mental environment that welcomes unabashed creativity and playfulness. When you ask small questions of others, you channel that creative force toward team goals. By asking small questions of yourself, you lay the groundwork for a personalized program for change.

“What shapes our lives are the questions we ask, refuse to ask, or never think to ask.” —Sam Keen

Parents intuitively know to ask questions, then answer them, then ask again and see if the child can recall. They understand that the brain loves questions.

By asking small, gentle questions, we keep the fight-or-flight response in the “off” position.

They allow the brain to focus on problem-solving and, eventually, action.

Even if you’re not aware of it, your fight-or-flight response is kicking in; that feeling you might call “writer’s block” is actually fear. The question you’ve asked yourself is too large and frightening. You’ve awakened your amygdala, and your cortex has simply shut down.

What’s one thing I wish to contribute to the world with my book, poem, song, or painting?
Whom could I ask for help or inspiration?
What is special about my creative process/talents/business team?
What type of work would excite and fulfill me?

Fears tend to sort themselves into two major categories: the fear of not being worthy (I don’t deserve it) and the fear of losing control (What if I like him and he leaves me?).

What small, caring act would you like to receive from an ideal partner right now?

What is one thing I like about myself today?

What is one thing your husband does that makes you happy?

What is one aspect of your job that makes you happy?

What’s one good thing about this person?

What is one small thing that is special about me (or my spouse, or my organization)?

Think Small Thoughts

The easy technique of mind sculpture uses “small thoughts” to help you develop new social, mental, and even physical skills—just by imagining yourself performing them!

mind sculpture down into several small steps:

Isolate a task either that you are afraid to do or that makes you uncomfortable.

Decide how many seconds you’re willing to devote to mind sculpture for this task each day.

sit or lie down in a quiet, comfortable spot and close your eyes.

Imagine that you are in the difficult or uncomfortable situation and looking around you through your own eyes. What do you see? What is the setting? Who’s there? What do they look like? See the expressions on their faces, the clothes they are wearing, their posture.

Now expand your imagination to the rest of your senses. What are the sounds and smells and flavors and textures around you?

Without moving an actual muscle, imagine that you are performing the task. What are the words you use?

What does your voice sound like and how does it resonate through your body? What are your physical gestures?

Imagine a positive response to your activity. If you are mind sculpting for public speaking, for example, see the audience leaning forward in their seats, looking responsive and interested. Hear the scratch of pencil on paper as some particularly enthusiastic people take notes.

When your allotted time for mind sculpture has become habitual and even fun, you may find that you are automatically performing the formerly difficult activity with enthusiasm. But if you’re not ready for the real thing, that’s perfectly okay. Never force the process of kaizen; it works only if you let change happen in a comfortable and easy manner

You may instead choose to increase the time you spend on mind sculpture—but once again, you should increase slowly, perhaps by just thirty seconds. You should increase the length and pace only when the previous stage of mind sculpture has become effortless. If you start making excuses for not practicing mind sculpture, or if you find yourself forgetting to do it, then you need to cut back on the amount of time.

Once you feel comfortable using mind sculpture for this task (and it may take days or weeks or even longer), imagine a worst-case scenario and how you would respond effectively to it. A public speaker might feel nervous sweat run down his face as he sees the audience members looking bored and hears them whispering among themselves. He would then imagine how he would like to speak, gesture, and feel in that situation.

When you feel ready to take on the actual task, try out some small steps at first. To continue the public speaking example, consider giving your talk out loud but to an empty room or to an audience of one sympathetic person.

Just ask yourself: What is a tiny step I could make to achieve my goal?

Take Small Actions

Small actions are at the heart of kaizen. By taking steps so tiny that they seem trivial or even laughable, you’ll sail calmly past obstacles that have defeated you before. Slowly—but painlessly!—you’ll cultivate an appetite for continued success and lay down a permanent new route to change.

Hey, this change is so tiny that it’s no big deal. No need to get worked up. No risk of failure or unhappiness here.

Remember that your goal is to bypass fear

What small, trivial step could you take that might improve the quality of your health?

Solve Small Problems

We are so accustomed to living with minor annoyances that it’s not always easy to identify them, let alone make corrections. But these annoyances have a way of acquiring mass and eventually blocking your path to change. By training yourself to spot and solve small problems, you can avoid undergoing much more painful remedies later.

Try these exercises to sharpen your small-problem vision:

Recall a major mistake you’ve made at some point in your life. Now, take some time to consider whether there were small signs along the way indicating that things were not going according to your plans or wishes. What measures did you have to take to correct the problem? Did you halt your “assembly line” and start all over? Did you ignore the problem in the hopes you’d achieve your result on time anyway?

Identify one small mistake you have made today, without becoming angry with yourself for making this mistake. This single act, especially if you perform it daily, will raise your awareness of small mistakes.

Now ask yourself whether the small mistake you identified in exercise 2 reflects a larger problem, or if it has the potential to gather velocity. (If you misplaced your car keys, for example, ask yourself if you are trying to juggle too many things at once, or are so distracted that you might eventually make a more serious mistake.) By paying attention to this mistake, you will reduce its frequency. If you feel this mistake indicates a more significant problem in your life, ask yourself: What kaizen step can I take to correct this situation?

Ask yourself whether there are ways in which you irritate your family, friends, co-workers, or customers. Your new awareness alone reduces the probability that you will make this mistake again, but you should also ask yourself whether this mistake is part of a bigger problem. If you can peg the error to a larger issue, you’ll give yourself further incentive to work on it!

“Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.” —Tao Te Ching

Bestow Small Rewards

Whether you wish to train yourself or others to instill better habits, small rewards are the perfect encouragement. Not only are they inexpensive and convenient, but they also stimulate the internal motivation required for lasting change.

What makes you feel appreciated?

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” —Aesop, “The Lion and the Mouse”

Think hard before deciding on a small reward. You want the reward to have these three qualities:

The reward should be appropriate to the goal.

The reward should be appropriate to the person.

The reward should be free or inexpensive.

Identify Small Moments

The kaizen approach to life requires a slower pace and an appreciation of small moments. This pleasant technique can lead to creative breakthroughs and strengthened relationships, and give you a daily boost toward excellence.

focus on the moments of change that bring you pleasure

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” —Desmond Tutu

“Turning toward your spouse in the little ways is also the key to long-lasting romance. Many people think that the secret to reconnecting with their partner is a candlelight dinner or a by-the-sea vacation. But the real secret is to turn toward each other in little ways every day.” —John Gottman

Kaizen For Life

As you experience success in applying kaizen to clear goals like weight loss or career advancement, remember to hold on to its essence: an optimistic belief in our potential for continuous improvement.

What more important task does this life hold than to draw out the possibility in each moment?