Kaizen – Small Improvements to Make a Big Impact

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Kaizen - Continuous Improvement

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

Wouldn’t it be great to lose 30 pounds? Well, don’t start with the first pound; start with the first ounce.

Want to write a book? Don’t start with the first chapter; start with the first page (or first sentence!).

Want to start eating healthier? Don’t start a diet; start with eating one extra fruit or vegetable a day.

Some of these examples may sound a little underwhelming, but it is all part of a life principle or method called Kaizen:

  • A strategy that focuses on Continuous Improvement and not just need-based upgrades.
  • A strategy that is proven to thwart the brain’s built-in resistance (or fear) of change and build success upon success.
  • A strategy that understands that drastic changes are not made overnight, but instead, uses sustainable and consistent small changes (or goals) over time to make a big impact/improvement.

There is no denying the effectiveness of kaizen for those who decide this method is for them. This is a suitable lifestyle choice for those who want enduring change and not temporary fixes. Kaizen is a term that has been defined in a multitude of ways various applications such as business, marketing, or manufacturing.  For example, in the business world, the term is used for workplace improvement and quality assurance similar to methods like SixSigma. However, I think it is even more valuable when applied to one’s personal life.

What does Kaizen mean?

Kaizen has many English translations, but Kaizen directly translates into ‘change for the better’ or ‘improvement’, but I like to consider it as the art of continuous improvement.

Kaizen is actually broken into two parts, ‘Kai’ meaning change, and ‘zen’ meaning good, and the overall translation means IMPROVEMENT. How the word ‘continuous’ was added in front of it, I don’t know, but I like the sound of it and will be sticking to that idea throughout this discussion. (read Interesting Facts at the end)

Regardless, one thing that cannot be refuted in the definition of kaizen is the word improvement.

Change Your Life! Improve your Business!

It’s unfortunate that people have turned this philosophy into a marketing and business term, because I really like it. “Change Your Life” or “Improve your business” are typical phrases used for books or articles that teach the concepts of kaizen. The word is becoming sort of a catch phrase that people enjoy throwing into conversations.

Kaizen just makes sense. So let’s talk about it. First, let’s discuss why it works. Then, we’ll cover how to use it.

The Fear Factor

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.” – John Allen Paulos

Change is scary and unavoidable. Getting a new job. Having a baby. Moving to a different country. Or even something smaller, like starting a new semester at school or starting a new project.

Fear of change or uncertainty is built in to the brain’s physiology, and when this fear is activated, it can block creativity, thinking, productivity, and success. The bigger the fear of change, the more resistant the brain will be. The culprit: the amygdala.

The amygdala is absolutely crucial to our survival and it controls for our fight-or-flight response, an alarm mechanism that quickly makes the decision for action when in immediate danger. This process is much quicker than rational thought and reacts by turning off other brain functions (rational or creative thinking) that could interfere with your physical ability to flee or fight.

This response is very important. If you are in the forest and a bear jumps in front of you, you don’t stop and analyze the problem and how to react; you simply run. All nonessential brain functions shut down and your body is thrown into survival mode and you act! Functions such as digestion, sexual desire, pain, or thoughts about your workplace deadlines are considered non-issues. Thank you, Mr. Amygdala.

So, how does this wonderful brain feature get us into trouble?

Even when we’re not dodging lions, tigers and bears in the wild, our automatic fear response is still activated on a daily basis. Why?! Our brains are programmed such that any new challenge, opportunity, change, or unknown is treated with at least some degree of fear (even if it’s good!). When fear is present, we are ready for action (physically), but our access to varying areas of brain functionality are restricted and sometimes shut down.

What can we do? Is there a way to not activate this fear?

Simple, Yet Effective

Kaizen focuses on small changes while keeping in mind the overall improvement you are trying to make. Why small changes? Let’s look at what happens when you strive for big changes versus little changes:

Big Change –> Fear –> Fight-or-Flight –> Brain functions blocked –> failure

Small Change –> Minimal fear –> Brain is content –> success

When we make small changes, our built-in fear response is not activated (or fully activated) and we are able to make these changes easily. Once our brain is accustomed to this new change (a habit), we can make another small change. Let’s look at a BAD example:

Jon is a hard working programmer and father of two. His job requires him to be a morning person even though he’d rather program all through the night. Through college he learned the benefits of caffeine. At first he was only drinking one or two cups a day, but after a few months, he was drinking three or four cups a day to compensate for his increased caffeine tolerance to help him work into the late hours. After 8 long years and he has decided it’s time to give it up because he can’t stand the ‘down’ he gets after the caffeine wears off.

Jon decides that come next Monday, he is going to quit. He has been building it up in his mind all week and he is excited for this new change.

Monday morning arrives and he feels great after a full night of sleep! By 11am, his brain is saying ‘WTF? Something is missing here’, and he starts to feel exhausted and can’t concentrate. He would love to get a cup of joe at this time, but NO, he is going to hold strong. He struggles through the workday, but survives. He makes it home to his kids and doesn’t have energy to entertain or cook so he gives the kids pop tarts for dinner and relaxes on the sofa. He believes he just needs to survive a few days and he’ll be good to go.

He’s been exhausted all day, but as he finally pulls the sheets up to his chin, the barrage of headaches commence. The headaches lasted all night and he only slept a few hours.

6 am. Can’t sleep, he takes his first sip of coffee. The headache dissipates and as he is able to think again he realize that this was not the right way to do this.

Jon lasted one day. Big changes are unpleasant and our brain quickly learns to avoid them. Jon quickly learned that his brain wasn’t willing to give up caffeine that easily and that although going ‘cold-turkey’ can work for some, it wouldn’t work for him.

Kaizen Goals and Steps

Kaizen’s primary objective is to remove all inefficiencies and waste, and strive towards perfection. Personal perfection sounds a little extreme, however, living with a continuous self-improvement mindset will create the best you that you can be.

Now, how you do this is by keeping an active eye for improvement opportunities using the following steps:

  1. Review Current Situation/Process/Emotion/Habit
  2. Validate Need for Improvement (Identify Needs)
  3. Plan systematically, and if change is big; break into smaller sequential steps
  4. Destroy Limiting Beliefs (I can’t do it. It’s too difficult. It’ll never be better)
  5. Act. (Make your improvement)
  6. Review, Reflect and verify results.

Notice how you start and end with ‘reviewing’? Be constantly aware of your status as well as where you want to be, and always verifying that you have made a change for the better.

A couple of guidelines to follow:

  • Never judge, criticize, or blame. Don’t be critical of your progress, always accept your current situation and work towards your goal.
  • Make sure your improvements are measurable (or you can feel the improvements).
  • Repeat the cycle. Continuously.

Kaizen refutes:

  • Accepting that one way is the correct way, because it has always been done that way.
  • Believing there is only one way to do something correctly.
  • There is no room for improvement.
  • Working alone is most effective.

Good.  Here is a more kaizen way for quitting caffeine (for Jon):

  1. Review: I realize that drinking excessive caffeine can possibly have a negative impact on my brain and life (dehydration, blocked mental processes, trouble sleeping, habit forming, etc).
  2. Validate: I drink 4 cups of coffee a day. I think I may be addicted because I’ve tried to quit several times.
  3. Plan: Well, it won’t be easy so I’ll make a plan. I’m going to drink one less cup per day each week for the first month. Then, I’m going to switch to non-caffeinated and still have my nice warm cup of joe in the morning. If I need a little caffeine, I’ll drink caffeinated tea for the second month. Third month, I’ll drink caffeine-free tea or coffee.
  4. Destroy Limiting Beliefs: I know I can do this. I know it is better for me and I’ll be able to think more clearly, wake up feeling energized, and save a few dollars each day.
  5. Act: I’ll begin on Monday!
  6. Review: Review progress each week (or day) and evaluate how I feel about each change. Do I need to make a slower change? Do I feel comfortable making these changes?

Going through these six steps keeps you conscious of your goals and your current status. When you make a plan, stick to to it and don’t decide to speed it up, but it IS okay to slow it down.

* Side note: Write your goals and plans down! Make sure you can see them at least twice a day!

Kaizen Summary

By using the 6 steps defined and making small changes we can bypass the brain’s fear-based, programmed resistance to change. Kaizen is a lifestyle choice that challenges us to live a life of continuous improvement, growth, and to eliminate waste (or baggage). Accept your personal situation and don’t blame or criticize yourself; focus on the now and work your way forward.

Typically, when we notice an area we want to change, we want to change it right away. Although Kaizen can sound underwhelming, try it out and see if it works for you in creating lasting improvements.

Interesting Facts:

  • Kaizen is thrown around as Japanese Philosophy, but the term actually originates from Chinese, yet its characters are the same within Chinese, Japanese and Korean!
  • Some people define Kaizen as ‘Continuous Improvement’, but neither symbol means “Continuous”.

This post was written by

Greg has written 69 articles on Student of Me.

Greg is the creator and primary writer for Student of Me. He probably spends way too much time on the computer writing, researching, programming, and working on his photography. He loves escaping from screen-time to travel, ride his motorcycle, experience the outdoors and spend time with loved ones. You can contact him at greg (at) studentofme.com!

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