Kaizen, The Psychology of Making Small Steps

Posted by on Oct 31, 2012 in Continuous Improvement, Lean, Lean Six Sigma, Process Improvement | 0 comments

In his recent book, The Spirit of Kaizen, Creating Lasting Excellence One Small Step At A Time, Robert Maurer, makes the case for using kaizen as the preferred method for making change in an organization.  Kaizen is a Japanese word that literally means “good change.”  It is the little or small things a company does on a daily basis to change and improve their operation.  According to Maurer, these little or small improvements tend to be more easily accepted by employees.  Contrast this with radical change on the other hand, which tends to frighten people and cause them to resist the change effort.

Radical change creates this fear because of how we humans think.  Over the long course of evolution, our nervous system has developed an unfortunate feedback loop that causes our brain to respond to change with fear.  It goes back to our basic survival mechanism, the flight or fight response that sets off alarm bells whenever it perceives danger.  This fear reduces our ability to think creatively and clearly.

Kaizen, on the other hand, is different.  It requires you to take small steps each and every day.  These small steps are so slow and quiet, they never arouse your fears and your alarm bell never goes off and you retain access to your rational, creative thoughts.

Maurer goes on to talk about how this accumulating change can be good for management as well.  He describes the power of incremental change by quoting from Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great:

“We kept thinking we would find the “one big thing,” the miracle moment that defined breakthrough.  We even pushed for it in our interviews.  But… no matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformation never happened in one fell swoop.  There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution.  Good to great comes about by a cumulative process — step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel — that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.”

The lesson from all this is that it doesn’t take radical ideas or restructuring to create change in an organization.  We often hear organizations putting the blame on culture saying that they don’t have a culture of continuous improvement.  My opinion is that putting the blame on culture is a cop out.  Kaizen, or incremental change, takes work and, slow, steady persistence.  Something which a lot of organization don’t have the discipline to do.  Most organizations are still looking for the “silver bullet” or the “quick fix” to cure their problems.

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