It has been said that the only constant is change. There is one other constant, the desire to change. Yet change is difficult for most of us. New Year’s resolutions often are quickly abandoned, and willpower andself-discipline offer limited assistance.
So how can we create positive improvements in our health, our work, and our relationships? Surprisingly, a strategy developed to enhance the quality of military equipment in World War II has wonderful peacetime applications.
At the beginning of the war, there were little human or material resources to spare, so a group of consultants led by a man named W. Edwards Deming encouraged factory workers to look for very small ways to improve the process or the end product, ways that required little time or expense. These little changes unexpectedly led to major improvements in the quality of equipment that helped win the war.
After the war, the Japanese invited Dr. Deming to share his strange ideas about quality with their engineers. His ideas were quickly embraced by Japanese industry, including Toyota, that gave the concept of making very small improvements to achieve large goals the name kaizen.
Kaizen has been used by industries throughout the world to increase quality and enhance creativity. So can the strategy of making very small steps to achieve large goals be used to improve your success, health, and relationship goals? The answer is an emphatic yes!
Let me share just a few of the surprising findings. One of the most famous health studies has followed 5,200 Boston residents since 1980. The study found that losing one pound a year for four years and keeping the weight off for four years reduced the risk of developing high blood pressure by 25%.
A Mayo Clinic investigation found that thin people moved around more than heavy people. Healthy-weight individuals took the stairs, parked farther away from the store, paced more while talking on the phone, and just moved more during the day than heavy people. The difference was a measly 350 calories, but over the course of a year, it resulted in a 30- to 40-pound weight loss.
Exercising 10 times a day in three-minute intervals results in the same health benefits as one 30-minute workout.
John Gottman, Ph.D., has studied couples’ interactions in an attempt to predict marital success. His results are extraordinary. He can conduct a 15-minute interview and predict the likelihood of relationship success with 93% accuracy!
What does this have to do with kaizen? One of his predictors is that positive attention outweighs negative attention by a minimum of five to one. What does this mean? It takes us back to small moments, small actions. It is the tone on your partner’s voice when you call during the day. Is his or her voice excited or does his or her voice tone suggest you are interrupting more important tasks? Does he or she put down the remote control, the newspaper, the telephone when you walk through the door? If you went to the dentist this morning, does he or she remember to ask you about it tonight?
These small moments, accumulating throughout the day, were highly predictive of marital success.
In our 70mm, Dolby, Supersized, Extreme-Makeover Culture, it is hard to believe that these small steps can achieve large goals. So why does kaizen work? There are two reasons.
One is that the small steps do not trigger fear. The bigger the change, the more fearful. The more fear, the more likely the individual is to avoid the changes. For example, deciding to join a gym, hire a trainer, and go on a severe diet regimen may trigger fears of failure, fears of success, fears as one drags an overweight body to a gym filled with trim, attractive people. By making the steps small, the fear remains small or nonexistent.
Two, the repetition of brief events grabs the brain’s attention and begins to build a habit. You only have to look at advertising to witness the power of repetition. Even if you are a vegetarian, the sight of two golden arches immediately calls up the name of the restaurant and its products. It has shown you its ads often in 15-second commercials, and the sheer repetition has compelled your brain to commit cells to the images. You can “advertise” good health, good work behaviors, good responses to challenging people, by repetition. You will be more effective practicing a new behavior a minute or two a day, daily, than doing the behavior once a week for a longer period of time.
One of my favorite kaizen exercises is called mind sculpture. It was discovered by world-class athletes who used it to train. They would close their eyes, pretend they were actually in the event, seeing the basketball net or the hockey goal or the Tour de France path before them, and, without moving a muscle, they would imagine themselves doing the athletic behavior perfectly.
Mind sculpture is based on an obvious principle: with your eyes closed, the brain is so stupid, it doesn’t know where it is and is sending perfect messages to the body. So, imagine a difficult colleague in front of you — remember, eyes closed — and see him or her doing whatever it is you find irritating. Now, without moving a muscle, picture yourself looking at the person, only now you are saying and gesturing the way you would like to ideally, with the voice tone you would like to have. Again, repeat this exercise once or twice a day, and the brain will commit cells to the new behavior.
Kaizen is also useful in the creative process. There is a myth that many great inventions and discoveries arose from big “aha moments” where a sudden burst of insight or genius led to breakthrough ideas. This happens, but it is the exception rather than the rule. Many wonderful discoveries and products came out of a small moment, too small for others to notice or care about, but this person thought worthy of a second look.
We were gifted with Disneyland when Walt Disney took his two young daughters to an amusement park. He put them on the first ride, sat on the bench, and collected them afterwards. He went to the second ride, and again watched them from a bench. By the third ride and the third bench, he was quite bored and looking around at the other bored adults. He thought, There must be a way for a family to share an amusement park together, and Disneyland was invented on that third bench.
The bar code that has revolutionized so many industries, from grocery stores to airline baggage, was a kaizen moment. The inventor was trying to figure out how to speed up the grocery-checkout process. He was not succeeding, and one day, sitting at the beach, sticking his hand in and out of the sand in frustration, he saw the sand sticking to the grooves of his fingers and thought, That’s it. The bar code was invented.
Throughout my program, One Small Step Can Change Your Life, there are other examples of kaizen discoveries, including the microwave, the Internet, the credit card, and the seven-academy-awards-winning movie Schindler’s List, to name a few.
Embracing small moments and taking small actions can make life more joyful, rewarding, and meaningful. With kaizen, significant life changes are effortless, simple, and inevitable.
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