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Kaizen method – a small step for big changes

I will practice sport regularly, I will lose 15 kilos, I will get married this year, I will build a house… – these are only some of the resolutions and plans we make at the end of the year. All of them are very lofty and it would be great to make them come true. Life verifies our readiness for changes very fast though and it turns out, that in most cases it was a so called short-lived enthusiasm. Resolutions are lost in the mists of time. We find better and better explanations for our sloth and aversion to introduce any changes. Our life’s annual profit and loss balance reaches zero point and in fact does not differ from the previous years one.

What should we do so that our resolution was not only a lofty phrase, written down somewhere in the calendar, to make it come true?

The Kaizen method may be appropriate. Kaizen (Jap. kai – a change, zen – perfect) is a method based on the philosophy of a continuous perfecting. Its application lets us achieve a success and introduce the change by ‘small steps’ tactic. This strategy enables conducting a current analysis of respective stages of the change process as well as correction of possible errors. Moreover ‘small steps’ are not as shocking as sudden and rapid actions, which significantly increase the possibility of change introduction.

The Kaizen philosophy was born in the 40’s of the XX century in Japan. The American specialist in quality control, Dr Edward Demming, had an invaluable contribution to its development. Thanks to statistic methods (‘statistic process management’) he propagated among Japanese an idea which states that our life is a never-ending process of enhancing, which leads to our development. That philosophy gained a lot of recognition among Japanese that they started to use this method not only for their own purposes, but it became a doctrine of many organizations as well.

Also today the Kaizen philosophy is successfully used both on the individual and institutional level.

The article constitutes a review of the Kaizen strategies which may be used by anyone who wants to introduce changes in a well thought-out and efficient way and improve their quality of life at the same time.

Small steps of the Kaizen method – how does it work?

Human brain is shaped the way that every change (even the positive one) perceives as a potential threat. Facing potential changes, human and the body are ready to act. The defense mechanism of ‘fight and escape’ is active. This model of reaction is automatic. It appears every time we try to introduce any modification in our life. Then we observe resistance on the behavioural level, in the area of emotions we experience fear, dislike, indifference, a decrease in motivation. Moreover the mechanism of ‘fight and escape’ limits and intensively blocks the access to creative solutions and rational thinking. This is related to a so called amygdale, which as a result of ‘fight and escape’ mechanism blocks the access to the cerebral cortex, responsible, among others, for rational and creative thinking).

The question is: is it possible to introduce permanent changes that way, not to turn on the mechanism of ‘fight and escape’? In other words, how to introduce any modification blocking simultaneously paralyzing anxiety reactions?

The answer is ‘small steps’ of the Kaizen method, which allows avoid and to some extent cheat the ‘fight and escape’ mechanism. The strategy of small, consistently repeated steps reduces the resistance to changes, supports the process of new habits creation (creation of new nervous connections between nerve cells), which as a result leads to a permanent change.

Within the Kaizen method, 6 strategies have been worked out, which at one’s discretion can be used cumulatively as well as selectively.

Kaizen strategy: [1]

  • asking small questions
  • mind shaping
  • small actions
  • inconspicuous problems solution
  • self-awarding
  • sensitivity to small things

How to ask small questions

Questions, problem situations, puzzles are for the human brain a very stimulating factor. They are a perfect training which provides the brain’s efficient activity. The brain becomes involved in assigned tasks and tries to find answers to the given questions, on condition that they are expressed in a positive language and are so small and ‘safe’ that do not cause anxiety reactions. The present anxiety causes that the energy essential for managing the basic intellectual challenges, stops to ‘supply’ creative processes and is guided on defense actions (a stimulation of ‘fight and escape’ mechanism by a factor – a question which causes anxiety).

When choosing this Kaizen method strategy, the persons are encouraged to quit questions like: Why am I so fat? How to lose 15 kilo by the end of the year? in favour of those expressed in a positive language and are ‘smaller’. Thanks to this they do not cause anxiety, panic or resistance and simultaneously move closer to the set goals. In accordance with the Kaizen strategy, the above question should sound: What do I like in myself? How can I remember about a regular water drinking? (which, as everybody knows, helps slimming process) or: How can I introduce 5 minutes of exercises to my daily schedule?

Those questions are not only small, but first and foremost concrete, and regularly asking our mind them, sooner or later lead to the solution and to the answer.

Mind shaping

This is the strategy based on extremely precise mind imagining of a situation, action which is crucial to us, which we want to improve. Figments of our imagination, according to this strategy, have to involve all human senses. Apart from images we should imagine: smells, sounds, tastes, touch and recall accompanying emotions.

Persons, who propagate the Kaizen method, prove that a few minutes from the beginning of the intellectual exercise by means of all available senses, the chemistry of mind starts to change, modifying cells’ activity and connections between them in order to create the complex verbal and motor skills. Therefore, after a dose of such exercises, we are able to acquire new skills[2].

When practicing the mind shaping strategy, it is worth to pay attention to quiet and lengthen our breath, make sure the place where we practice our imagination was quiet and the pose loose, relaxed.

Small actions

When choosing this strategy, it is worth considering, that the taken steps should be not too big – so small that they may seem even imperceptible and thereby contribute hardly anything on the route to change. Nothing more mistaken! Only a small and easy step (repeated with consequence) may preserve a human from the resistance to change and will not demotivate at the same time.

The good example of small actions, taken in accordance with this strategy may be: arranging stuff on the shelf in the wardrobe, instead of cleaning the whole room at once, memorizing one word a day in case we would like to learn a foreign language, marching in one place for one minute as a habit leading to regular physical activity in the long run.

Small problem solving

The strategy consists in a watchful world, other people, oneself observation. Its aim is to identify symptoms, which may lead to important negative consequences in the future. The strategy is illustrated very well by words of Tao Te Ching: you should face difficult situations, when they are still easy; make great activities by a series of small actions[3].

Self awarding

It is an extremely pleasant strategy of the Kaizen method, based on strengthening positive behaviour by introducing an award. Using this method we have to remember that the award will fulfill its motivating function. If it is coherent with the goal (e.g. a purchase of a new fitness wear for a person whose aim is to lose weight by physical exercises, listening to a few pieces of favorite record for a person, whose aim is to save up time ‘for themselves’ after the whole day of work) as well as small and cheap, so that their purchase does not cause frustration, which was usually caused by a constrained budget and pricks of conscience.

Self-awarding apart from being very pleasant and requires from us an answer to the question: What do I really like? What makes me happy in my life? So it enriches human self-awareness in the field of their needs, dreams and goals.

Sensitivity to small things

Nowadays when the life pace is dizzying and the permanent development and information exchange force us to be up to date, we lack in time to stop for a while and start to act more reflectively than automatically.

How often we are delighted by a scenic garden passed by on the way to work, how often we taste morning coffee with the real delight? Unusually rarely, but it is very important. Those moments are our day to day grind. Saving up a short few seconds break in the everyday chase brings us a lot of positive emotions. And as everybody knows, ability to perceive details, looking at certain matters from a different point of view, many a time that led to breakthrough inventions and significantly influenced the human destiny.

This strategy is an incentive to work out an ability to observe world and people attentively, without assessment, making comparisons, ambitious analysis. It means the art of being ‘now and here’.

In the Kaizen idea there is one more strategy, ‘5 Why?’, which teaches us that facing a problem situation, we should behave like little children, who continuously ask a question: why? By multiple asking this kind of questions, it is possible to reach the real reason (root cause).

The Kaizen method strategies are neither complicated nor difficult. They require from us being consequent. It is worth giving us a bit of time, because according to the results of research we need 90 days in order to make the activity becomes a habit[4].

There is a beautiful and wise Chinese saying: Even the longest road starts from the first step, so it is worth to risk and make this first, even tiny step on the road to changes. We do not risk anything and the chances for the improvement of the life quality, regaining faith in our strengths, quitting malcontent attitude seem to be an unusually tempting view!

Ewa Ossowska 


Bibliography:

  1. Maurer R., Filozofia kaizen. Jak mały krok może zmienić Twoje życie", Helion, Gliwice 2007.
  2. Sens" 2009/10, No.6/1.



[1]             R. Maurer, Filozofia Kaizen. Jak mały krok może zmienić Twoje życie, Helion, Gliwice, 2007, p. 23.

[2] Tamże, p. 66.

[3] Tamże, p. 115.

[4] „Sens" 2009/10, No. 6/1.

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