In Japanese “kaizen” means “good change.” Although the word is identified with the dominance of Japanese businesses in the second half of the twentieth century, it had its roots in U.S. government programs instituted during World War II known as Training Within Industry (TWI). TWI stressed that since there was no time for corporations to perform total makeovers to meet wartime needs, they should instead pursue continuous improvement using what they had. As a strategy for change, kaizen “asks for nothing other than small, doable steps toward improvement.”
In The Spirit of Kaizen: Creating Lasting Excellence One Small Step at a Time (McGraw-Hill, 2013) Robert Maurer, a psychologist on the faculty of the UCLA and University of Washington Schools of Medicine, explores the many ways in which kaizen can help organizations make changes with minimal disruption and help people improve both their work and their personal lives.
By instinct most people resist change. The amygdala “smells danger whenever you try to change your routine—because to the amygdala your routine feels secure, good, and safe.” (p. 17) As a result, innovation, by which Maurer means radical change, rarely works. If, however, “the amygdala is like an alarm system, small steps are like cat burglars. Quietly, slowly, and softly, they pad past your fears. Your alarm never goes off.” (p. 18) Rather than looking for the “one big thing” to solve a problem, people should take very, very small steps. In this way they can change habits, even find inspiration, all with minimal stress. (“Inspiration,” Maurer writes, “is much more likely to develop from the habit of consistently paying attention to life’s small moments.” [p. 84])
Maurer demonstrates the value of kaizen in business. Take UPS, for instance, a company “with a kaizenlike attention to detail. (The company saves space at its dispatch centers by mandating that its brown vans park exactly five inches apart, with the rearview mirrors overlapping.) Using kaizen thinking, the UPS engineers recognized that left-hand turns are costly to the company; trucks have to idle longer at intersections, consuming extra fuel and taking up precious time. The engineers edited their GPS software to reduce left-hand turns. UPS has estimated that in one year, this change saved 28.5 million miles off their usual routes and saved 3 million gallons of gas. And within five months of the change, carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by more than a thousand metric tons in New York City alone.” (p. 56)
Lately there’s been a great deal of focus on little things—“little bets” come immediately to mind. I for one am a believer. Making little bets can potentially reap big rewards with minimal risk; taking little steps can bring about significant change with minimal stress.
Let me close with an excerpt from the most recent Yale Alumni Magazine about Richard Levin, the retiring president of Yale, which I believe reinforces this point. “An admirer of Rick Levin’s once told me that she hadn’t started out that way. When he was picked as the 22nd president of Yale, she was unimpressed. He wasn’t charismatic. He lacked the rhetorical flair that had become a hallmark of Yale presidents. ‘But then,’ she said, ‘he went and he fixed this little thing’—circling her hands around a spot on her desk as if it were some roiling problem on campus. ‘And then he fixed that’—and then another problem, and another and another, until she had become an ardent believer.” His presidency was described as “a record of specifics.”