How to Make Changes the Kaizen Way

Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy. To make changes the kaizen way is to take small steps, rather than large leaps, with the goal of continuous improvement. It’s what writers do when they focus on the day’s page of work rather than the hundreds of pages still to be written. Or when a former couch potato starts an exercise program by walking for two minutes today and three minutes tomorrow.

The big advantage to incremental change is that small changes keep the fear center in our brains from activating. Small changes are meant to be comfortable, relaxed, and easy. Kaizen is therefore the exact opposite of the big, bold moves that are often promoted as the best way to make significant changes.

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.

Lao Tzu

In his book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, author Robert Maurer identifies six strategies that are part of the kaizen way of change. It is not necessary to use all six strategies. Just identify a change you’d like to make, and choose one or two strategies that you think might help you achieve your goal.

1. Ask small questions

Questions are better than commands at keeping fear from taking over your brain. Small, positively worded questions are best of all. So ask yourself, “How can I incorporate a few more minutes of exercise into my daily routine?” not “How could I have allowed myself to be in such terrible shape?”

If you repeat the questions over and over, for days and weeks, your brain will have no choice but to address them.

2. Think small thoughts

Use creative visualization, explained in this post, to imagine yourself taking a step towards your goal. Maurer gives the example of a goal of eating more vegetables, and a visualization where you spend a few seconds each day using all of your senses to imagine eating and enjoying broccoli.

Start wherever you are and start small.

Rita Baily

3. Take small actions

The idea is to take the smallest possible step, the step that is so easy and effortless that there is absolutely no possibility of failure or resistance. Some examples include: getting more sleep simply by going to bed one minute earlier; keeping the house clean by tidying up for no more than five minutes, or losing weight by throwing away just the first bite of the candy bar.

4. Solve small problems

Maurer explains, “Small annoyances have a way of acquiring mass and eventually blocking your path to change.” So learn to look for and solve problems when they are tiny.

5. Give yourself small rewards

The average value of a reward in Japanese businesses is $3.88. In American businesses, the average reward is worth $458.00.

Big rewards are actually counterproductive because they’ve been shown to damage intrinsic motivation. Toyota employees offer the company 1.5 million suggestions a year despite the reward being a simple fountain pen.

The takeaway is to give yourself a reward that has these characteristics: It’s appropriate to your goal; it matters to you, and it is free or inexpensive.

Some examples of rewards include: a luxurious bubble bath; twenty minutes with a great book, or going for a walk.

All great things have small beginnings.

Peter Senge

6. Identify small moments

The kaizen approach to change is slow. You will be more aware of and satisfied with your progress if you can learn to notice the small moments of success as they are happening.

What do you think? Is there an area of your life where the kaizen approach to change could be helpful?


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  1. Thanks for this Karen, my answer to your question of whether there is an area of my life where the kaizen approach to change could be helpful is a resounding “Heck yea!” I can think of many areas actually but to list them all will definitely not only activate the fear center in my brain but make the sucker sound the alarm. LOL 😉

    The area of my life I need to change most right now is practicing my mandolin. If I am understanding the kaizen approach to change and my goal is to practice for 10 minutes every day, I could make a small change just by picking it up off the stand and strumming the strings a few times or tuning it. Both of those options would take way less than ten minutes but the small change that would be comfortable and easy is merely picking the instrument up! It sits right beside my computer desk (I just glanced down at it now lol). If I were to pick it up every morning when I turn my computer on, even if I did not achieve practicing for ten minutes, I would be making a small improvement over not touching it for days. Then I could see a habit-forming out of picking it up every day and gradually playing it longer and longer until I reached my ten minutes a day.

    I like how the kaizen way is sneaky and gets around the fear of change in your brain. I won’t get overwhelmed with “having to play for ten minutes a day” if I focus on just picking the thing up and getting used to doing that every day before I worry about how long I hold it, or play it, for.

    Thanks again, Karen, I am going to give this a try. 😀

    1. You’ve got it exactly, Susan. So just pick up that mandolin – today, tomorrow, and all through the weekend. When you’re ready, pick it up and strum it for a few seconds. And so on and so on. You’ll get there, guaranteed!

  2. Hi, Karen – I agree with small steps to big changes. Your tips are very helpful. Getting started and establishing a routine is never a problem for me. It’s when my routine is disrupted that I have a hard time getting back on track! Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Hmm. Does this mean that you’re having a bit of a challenge with routines after your big walk? I know you’ve still got lots of guest posts scheduled for your blog, but hope you’ll consider writing something about how life is the same/different after that experience. I, for one, am very curious!

  3. This is such a comfortable approach to use. I can walk for one minute today and then two tomorrow! Thanks for the incentive to actually do it.

    1. Absolutely, Fran. You can even walk for one minute every day for the next however long. In the book, Maurer talks about coaching a woman to stand up and walk in place during television commercials. She did that for a while and now goes to the gym for hour-long workouts. Not saying we’re going to be turning into Olympic athletes anytime soon but I love the idea of doing just enough to be doing something but not so much that fears get activated.

  4. The Kaizen way totally makes sense and is so much more achievable for the general public. I also think any change starts with the realization that you are unhappy about something and that you would like a change. Small steps are the way to big accomplishments, whether it is writing a page a day to complete a novel in the future, the desire to play music and purchase an instrument as a start, or begin with a walk around the block to get into forest hiking in the future.

    As for me, I’d like to sleep more/better. Going to bed earlier sometimes helps, but that totally depends on where my mind is. In a relaxing state? Great (but rare), I might get my eight hours of sleep. Senses and brain waves rushing around? Nope… no matter how early I go to bed, sleep will not come easily.

    1. I’m sorry you have trouble sleeping, Liesbet. Has that always been the case for you or is it something that only happens when you’re feeling busy and stressed? I’d love to see if there’s a kaizen way that would help.

      1. I think a lot, Karen. I have and I always will… Thoughts are the nemesis of sleep. And, when I fall asleep, I dream a lot. My mind is always and ever super active. It is exhausting. The only thing that might help is meditation, a glass of alcohol before going to bed, or being able to manage the thoughts, turn them into something positive and rest assured, with no worries and a smile on my face. 🙂

  5. It’s a good approach – now I know it has a name! My bugbear is clearing out / tidying e.g. cupboards. I’m very good at thinking of the small steps, “just one shelf a day” not so good at doing them. At home anyway – I have taken on a reclassification project at my voluntary job. This week’s one shelf turned into four.

    1. Hmm, sounds like your steps need to be even smaller for those shelves at home, Anabel. Maybe open that cupboard door and look at the shelf for a few days? Creep up on it in other words!

  6. The Kaizen Way sounds terrific. Small steps leading to big accomplishments and I guess celebrating each accomplishment as it comes – even if it is just walking a few steps to begin with. However Karen, throwing away the first bite of a chocolate bar could give me trouble. Perhaps I’ve reached the point in my life where anything I do manage to finish surprises me. Before I retired, I had goals; go to work, finish this assignment, write that report, attend another meeting – all manageable because there was a purpose to each. Since retiring, my only goal seems to be getting through the day without forgetting something (or someone). Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being retired, but perhaps Kaizen’s concept of small beginnings are something I should definitely consider.

  7. I have always found that working on projects in small chunks is best, especially as it relates to things like decluttering. If I look at the total job I can get overwhelmed, but saying to myself that I’ll just do a few smaller tasks seems much more doable. I have to say, though, that I’d much rather receive $458 as a reward than $3.88… or just a pen. 🙂

    1. I hear you, Janis. But the economists who study these things would tell you that granting you such a large reward will damage your intrinsic motivation. Still, for me it’s like the concept of a lottery win damaging my life forever. I would so love to prove that I’m the exception to the rule!

  8. Karen, I think that taking small steps is a great strategy for change and for establishing new habits. I have used tiny steps as a means to accomplish many goals throughout my life. Back in November 2012, I wrote a series of posts on heart healthy strategies for life. Taking very small steps that were easy to succeed at was one of the key strategies that I incorporated into my heart healthy change strategy.

    Another example was when I was a single mom with three young children and a full-time professor. It was hard to get everything done at home. I had a rule that every evening, I had to do one “extra” thing on top of the regular evening activities and tasks (make supper, clean up supper, help kids with homework, baths, storytime, bedtime). If I was feeling energetic, the extra thing might be to do a couple of loads of laundry, or shovel snow off the driveway. If I was feeling really tired, the extra thing might be something extremely easy, like wipe off the soap dish in the bathroom. I adjusted the size of the “extra” thing so that I could always be successful, thus not establishing a pattern of avoidance behaviour.


  9. I’ve always approached my work and any project in a “small bite” kind of way. It’s so much easier to tackle a big problem, or initiative by making it a series of small actions.

    Strangely, I’ve never used that approach to tackle the problem of trying to manage my weight at a level that would make me a lot happier. Needless to say, I’ve been a chronic failure in that department. I think you’ve just given me an *aha* moment.

    1. Hey Joanne,
      So happy to hear that you had an aha moment from this post.
      I often write what I need to learn… I too will be trying to manage (in my case, lose!) weight using the small steps approach. I’m very much a “go big or go home, let’s make massive changes all at once” kind of woman. I love huge transformations but when it comes to weight management, the result is that I fluctuate between perfection (for a millisecond) and gorging for the rest of the day because “I’ll start again tomorrow.” It’s so wearying.

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