Change for Better: The Exponential Art of Kaizen

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When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.Jacob A. Riis

How are post-war industries rebuilt? Can worldwide poverty be reduced? Can couples’ divorce rates be predicted?  

The answer to such dramatic questions is usually innovation. Innovation is a revolutionary process that requires an entirely different mindset to find novel solutions. And yet, innovation is not the only strategy to create dramatic change. If innovation happens quickly, requiring shocking transition and radical adaption, kaizen is an approach to commit to small and comfortable steps towards better circumstances. 

This Japanese concept (literal translation is “change for better”) is American in origin. It was brought initially to Japan by American statisticians and quality experts such as W. Edwards Deming, who helped Japan rebuild its industry after World War II. Toyota made kaizen famous by adopting the lean manufacturing process and the iterative improvement mindset. So, in the 1980s, kaizen crossed the world back to the United States, mainly in highly technical business settings.  

Nevertheless, kaizen is also a good strategy for personal self-improvement. Too many times, we tend to overlook the power of small steps. Still, over extended periods, tiny steps will compound into significant results. Instead of focusing on daunting questions and high expectations, we can break these targets into absurdly little milestones that we will try to hit consistently. 

The kaizen framework

The kaizen process looks like this:

  • First, we choose a novel habit that we want to incorporate into our daily routines or an action that makes us feel uncomfortable. 
  • Then, we repeatedly ask small questions on how to break this action into small steps. 
  • Following insightful answers, we break that activity into tiny little steps.
  • We allocate low time unit commitments (varying from seconds to minutes or tens of minutes) to fulfill them every day easily.  
  • Accountability is critical as it helps with setting clear intentions and keeping a straight course. Examples: keeping a journal, reviewing the day in a stoic manner, or having a partner, like a friend, online buddy, psychologist, etc. 
  • The goal is to maintain these new activities effortlessly. 

There are subtle psychological nuances about making the first step. After experiencing the first step, we can decide if it is time to make another. We will know when we are ready, as this process will become automatic.

But, if at any level, we find ourselves dreading the activity or making excuses to get rid of it, psychologist Robert Mauer suggests in his book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, acknowledging that it is time to reduce the size of the step. After all, life is not a game of perpetual ladders but more a game of snakes and ladders.

Why is repetition necessary? 

Because repetition does not make it perfect but permanent, whenever we repeat a new behavior, even for just a few seconds, eventually, the brain will stamp those actions as meaningful. As a result, it will create new neural pathways to reinforce those new behaviors.

Incremental and bite-size adjustments have a water-like quality: give them enough time, intention, and focus, and changes will start to permeate our lives like water absorbed by dry soil. 

Why is it essential to ask small questions? 

Sometimes we are so concerned about failure that we deliberately create vague goals, and thus, nobody can criticize us when we crash. Perhaps it helps to break the impossible questions into more manageable chunks.

Asking small questions might also lead to more truthful answers.

Focusing on asking questions allows the brain to concentrate on problem-solving. By repeating this behavior long enough, the brain will eventually lead us to valuable and novel insights or exciting approaches to our questions. 

Why is it important to take small actions? 

The brain tends to resist change and favors the sweet equilibrium of homeostasis. But small actions do not look perilous, so we rewire our nervous system by employing tiny steps. Thus, it is possible to hit a new homeostatic state where we fully incorporated and maintain the new habits.  

Examples of kaizen questions

  • What is one small step I could take toward reaching my goal?
  • What is one small step I could take to improve my health (or relationships, career, or any other area)?
  • If you tend to berate yourself with negative questions (Why am I so fat?), try asking: What is one thing I like about myself today? 
  • If health were my first priority, what would I be doing differently today?  
  • What is one way I can remind myself to drink more water?  
  • How could I incorporate a few more minutes of exercise into my daily routine? 
  • If you are unhappy but aren’t sure why, try asking yourself this: If I were guaranteed not to fail, what would I be doing differently? 
  • This question is for anyone who has a festering conflict with another person, whether a boss, employee, in-law, or neighbor, and is trying to get past this problem. Every day, ask yourself: What’s one good thing about this person? 

– Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

Examples of kaizen actions 

  • Stop overspending – Remove one object from the shopping cart before heading to the cash register.  
  • Begin an exercise program – Stand—yes, just stand!—on the treadmill for a few minutes every morning. 
  • Manage stress – Once a day, note where your body is holding tension (your neck? lower back? shoulders?). Then take one deep breath. 
  • Keep the house clean – Pick an area of the house, set a timer for five minutes, and tidy up. Stop when the timer goes off. 

– Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way 

Simply standing on the treadmill will not produce much health. But such tiny changes can bring winds of attitude change as initial resistance starts melting. Mauer writes of his patient, Julie, that she became more animated after standing on the treadmill for a minute daily and wanted to know what else can do on a few minutes per day. Within a few months, Julie found herself exercising even when she didn’t have to.   

The exponential growth of kaizen habits 

Usually, to explain exponential growth, teachers use the water lily problem: consider a lake with just one lily pad on a summer day of June 1. Now consider that every day lily pads will double in numbers. By June 30, lily pads will cover the whole lake. 

Q: When was 50% of the lake covered? 

A: June 29. As lily pads double in size, the lily pads will go from 50% on June 29 to 100% on June 30. 

Q: If lily pads cover the lake 100% on June 30 and 50% on June 29, when did the lily pads cover 1% of the lake? 

A: June 24th. (June 30 – 100%, June 29 – 50%, June 28 – 25%, June 27 – 12%, June 26 – 6%, June 25 – 3%, June 24 – 1%) 

It took more than three weeks for lily pads to cover just a tiny 1% of the lake and then less than a week to cover the whole lake. Similarly, there might be years behind an “overnight” success as it can take a long time to build a strong foundation and a much shorter time to get from 50% to 100% with kaizen.

The negative side of kaizen 

As this timeless xkcd cartoon shows, we might be chasing obsessive optimizations. Let’s ask ourselves: are all the improvements we want to apply worth our time, energy, and focus? 

Then, as the saying goes, it can’t be a superpower if it can’t be used for evil. The beginning of addiction usually follows kaizen. Just a drink, just a cigarette, just a pill, something so tiny, so small we would think it would not matter at all. Except that it does, and so, proceed with caution.

The marginal gains of kaizen and relieving global poverty 

In 2019, Esther Duflo, her husband Abhijit Banerjee, and Michael Kramer shared the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty“. Their approach to fighting global poverty is based on scientific evidence. They ran hundreds of randomized controlled trials (trials where participants are randomly allocated to various treatments) to find which approach yields better results.

Scientifically approaching kaizen does not mean making small changes and hope for the best. Instead, it is about breaking a complex problem into small parts. Then, by using empirical evidence from controlled and randomized experimentation, effects are isolated. Thus, it can be established which steps work and which don’t. 

For example, they discovered that:

The study of the long-term effect of deworming children in Kenya, mentioned above, concluded that being dewormed for two years instead of one (and hence being better nourished for two years instead of one) would lead to a lifetime income gain of $3,269 USD PPP. Small differences in investments in childhood nutrition (in Kenya, deworming costs $1.36 USD PPP per year; in India, a packet of iodized salt sells for $0.62 USD PPP; in Indonesia, fortified fish sauce costs $7 USD PPP per year) make a huge difference later on.

As Duflo declared to author Matthew Syed: 

It is very easy to sit back and come up with grand theories about how to change the world. But often, our intuitions are wrong. The world is too complex to figure everything out from your armchair. The only way to be sure is to go out and test your ideas and programs and to realize that you will often be wrong. But that is not a bad thing. It leads to progress. It is possible to make significant progress against the biggest problem in the world through the accumulation of a set of small steps, each well thought out, carefully tested, and judiciously implemented. -Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes–But Some Do 

Kaizen and predicting divorce rates 

John Gottman is an American psychological researcher who did over 40 years of extensive research on divorce prediction. Analyzing thousands of marriages at their couples laboratory Love Lab, Gottman has been able to predict with high accuracy (based on experiments, varying from 87% to 94% accuracy) if couples would be happily married or divorced within four years.

One of the groundbreaking findings was that positive remarks outweigh negative remarks with a daily factor of five to one in successful relationships. Long-lasting marriages weren’t about over-the-top grand gestures such as expensive holidays or memorable birthday parties, but they were more about the quiet, almost invisible gestures.

Partners were asking each other about their days. They used a pleased tone of voice when the partner called instead of an exasperated or rushed voice. Small gestures of affection are more predictive of loving and trusting relationships, presumably because repeated gentle moments provide consistent nourishing. And as for the name of Gottman’s podcast? Small things often. 

 This reminds me of what I read in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone:

One woman said to her husband, “You know what three words are even more romantic to me than ”I love you”?” “You look beautiful?” he tried. “No,” his wife said. “I understand you.”

Kaizen is deceptively simple and utterly brilliant. It would take a lot of focus, failures, regrouping, and trust in the system, not results. To continue working and tinkering on imperceptible changes day after day, year after year, with no 100% guarantee the road we take will lead anywhere. It doesn’t matter.  

Try again. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett 

Previously published at

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