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.
You may have experienced this phenomenon. The more important you believe the test to be, the more you have riding on the outcome, the more fear you feel. And then you find it difficult to concentrate. An answer you might have had down cold the night before seems to have withdrawn itself from your memory bank.
Some lucky people are able to get around this problem by turning their fear into another emotion: excitement. The bigger the challenge, the more excited and productive and thrilled they become. You probably know a few people like this. They come to life when they sense a challenge. But for the rest of us, big goals trigger big fear.
Just as it happened with our ancestors on the savanna, the brain restricts the cortex in order to get us moving away from the lion—but now the lion is a piece of paper called a test or a goal of losing weight, finding a mate, or creating a sales result. Creativity and purposeful action are suppressed exactly when we need them the most
The little steps of kaizen are a kind of stealth solution to this quality of the brain. Instead of spending years in counseling to understand why you’re afraid of looking great or achieving your professional goals, you can use kaizen to go around or under these fears. Small, easily achievable goals—such as picking up and storing just one paper clip on a chronically messy desk—let you tiptoe right past the amygdala (the part of the brain that processes fear).
Soon, your resistance to change begins to weaken.
#1 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.
Shhh . . . Don’t Wake the Amygdala! Make your questions small, and you reduce the chances of waking the amygdala and arousing debilitating fear. When fear is quiet, the brain can take in the questions and then pop out answers on its own timetable.
You want to do something creative: write a story or a song, paint a picture, dream up your perfect career, or come up with a zinger of a solution to an office problem. But you have no idea where to start. Your mind keeps coming up empty.
During times like these, kaizen can help you summon your powers of inspiration. Although you can’t force your brain to cough up creative ideas on demand, you can program it to launch the imaginative process simply by asking yourself a small question. Here are some examples. Feel free to come up with your own. Whatever question you use, your challenge is to ask it with a gentle and patient spirit. When you use a harsh or urgent tone with yourself, fear will clog the creative process.
- 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?
Remember: If you repeat the question over the course of several days or weeks—or for however long it takes—the hippocampus (the part of the brain that stores information) will have no choice but to address it. And in its own way, on its own timetable, the brain will begin giving you answers.
#2 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! Whatever your goal, mind sculpture is a terrific way to ease into your kaizen program for change. In true kaizen fashion, let’s break mind sculpture down into several small steps:
- Isolate a task either that you are afraid to do or that makes you uncomfortable. Try to give yourself at least a month before you actually have to perform this activity.
- Decide how many seconds you’re willing to devote to mind sculpture for this task each day. Make sure you allot seconds, not minutes or hours; the time commitment should be so low that you can easily fulfill its requirements every single day. Repetition is essential: Whatever you do repeatedly, even if for only a few seconds at a time, the brain decides must be important and so begins committing cells to the new behavior.
- When you are ready to practice mind sculpture, 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.
#3 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.
Don’t Small Steps Yield Slow Results? Kaizen steps may be small, but they can often lead to rapid change. Sometimes all it takes is one small step to effect a dramatic improvement.
When the goal is to perform an activity that you deeply resist (say, exercise) or to give up an ingrained habit (perhaps you shop as a way to relax), you may find that one small step isn’t quite enough. But that step does lead you comfortably to a second step and then a third, and so on, until one day you discover that you have mastered the change.
#4 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.
Learn to spot small problems. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and it’s always easier to spot a crack in the ceiling after rain has soaked the plaster. But it’s possible to train yourself to see small warning signs more clearly. 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!
#5 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’s the most common reason people leave the U.S. Navy? It’s not the notoriously low pay or the long months at sea. When sailors decide to reenter private life, their biggest complaint, according to a study reported by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff in his book It’s Your Ship, is feeling underappreciated at work. To keep their ranks full, many top naval officers are now consciously bestowing small rewards in the form of compliments and public recognition.
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.
#6 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.
Although kaizen is a potent force for career advancement, weight loss, improved health, and other goals, it is more profound than simply a tool for crossing the finish line. Try to see kaizen as a process that is never done. Don’t put it in a drawer, forgotten, once your goal has been reached. Kaizen invites us to see life as an opportunity for continuous improvement, for ever-higher standards and expanding potential.