Minute by minute, step by step – how continuous small improvements can lead to big change

Back in the 1950s, an American scholar called Dr Edward Deming was invited to Japan to assist in the rebuilding of industry. Key to his teaching was one question which he said needed to be asked each day:

What extremely small step can I take today improve the process or product?

The Japanese took this concept to heart and revolutionised their industry. They also gave this concept a name: kaizen which brings together the word for ‘change’ (kai) and the word for ‘good’ (zen).

On the left, ‘kai’ meaning ‘change’; on the right, ‘zen’ meaning good.

This philosophy of change being a good thing leads to an approach where you are actively seeking something small about your product or process each day which you can improve. Note that it’s not based on a massive change one day and then your work is done!

Can we apply kaizen to our own everyday lives?

Early in the New Year, I was talking with a client – let’s call her Claire – about her desire to make her morning routine easier. She has quite a commute to work and a lot to get through before she leaves the house each morning.

‘What could you do to improve your morning?’ I asked.

‘Ideally, I need an extra hour. I’ve been trying that for the last week – setting my alarm an hour earlier,’ she answered.

‘How’s that working for you?’

‘So far, I’ve slept through it twice, spent one morning hitting ‘snooze’ every seven minutes, managed it twice and felt like a zombie for the rest of the day,’ Claire laughed. ‘Seriously through, I really need to sort this out.’

I told her about kaizen and asked her what small change she could make each day to help her achieve her goal. ‘I could get up 15 minutes earlier each day,’ she suggested.

‘You could,’ I agreed, ‘so that means that if you start on a Monday, by Thursday you’ll be getting up an hour earlier. How does that feel?’

‘Still too hard! I can feel the zombie state creeping in on me even as I think about that!’ she cringed.

‘Okay, let’s go smaller. Let’s go crazily small,’ I challenged.

‘Well, the smallest I can do is get up one minute earlier each day,’ Claire offered, ‘but what’s the point of that?’

‘The point is that if you start next Monday, by the middle of the following week, you’ll be up 10 minutes earlier, presumably without having to hit snooze or feeling like a zombie for the rest of the day. Ten days later, you’ll be up 20 minutes earlier. What would that be like?’

‘Actually, it would be great. Crazy as this kaizen stuff sounds, I’m going to give it a go. I’m going to keep it going at weekends too so I don’t lose the impetus and I wouldn’t mind having a bit more time for me then as well.’

And on Monday 8 January, Claire’s alarm went off 1 minute earlier. She’s had a couple of occasions where it hasn’t worked out as planned but rather than give it all up, she’s carried on the following day. She tells me that by today, Friday 2 March, she’ll be getting up 50 minutes earlier than she was at the beginning of the year.

kaizen continuous improvement marginal gains

In his book ‘One small step can change your life‘, Dr Robert Maurer writes

‘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.’

In other words, a big change can sometimes be so big that it invokes our fight or flight response and therefore we resist the change and seek comfort. Breaking a change down into tiny parts can help bypass that response and therefore we can make progress.

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: what extremely small step towards improvement can you take today? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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