Book Review: One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way
While doing research for my upcoming book on “Healthcare Kaizen,” I found two books that touched on kaizen-style continuous improvement in our everyday lives. One was a brief mention in a book from a TV personality (see my post An Unexpected Lean Thinker and her “Kaizen Lifestyle”) and the second is a book with a more intensive and clinical look at kaizen, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer PhD, a professor of behavioral sciences at UCLA.
I finally read all of Maurer’s book, in one sitting while traveling late last year, and I really enjoyed it. I’d like to share a formal review here.
Maurer, in introducing kaizen (translated from Japanese as “continuous improvement”), cites The original Training Within Industry program, Dr. W. Edwards Deming (Maurer’s initial exposure to the principles of kaizen) and Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno and he describes the impact this approach had for Toyota and others in industry. Maurer, in his book, is translating and adapting kaizen principles to issues in the realm of clinical counseling and his patients, with problems including:
- Wanting to quit smoking
- Needing to exercise more
- Desiring to eat better
- Wanting to floss daily
- Becoming more appreciative of one’s spouse
Ironically, there are some lessons from the clinical realm that we can, I think, bring back to the workplace.
Maurer writes of Julie, a patient who wanted (needed) to exercise more. Traditional advice would be to ask her to launch immediately into some big fancy exercise program that, since it seemed overwhelming, might not even get started (or might not sustain) — sounds familiar to big programmatic approaches to workplace improvement, right?
“How about if you just march in place in front of the television, each day, for one minute?”
Maurer writes about how the human brain, the prehistoric part called the amygdala, is programmed to exhibit a “fight or flight” response. When this happens, our higher-level cognitive thinking is shut off. This is a helpful survival instinct when we are in real physical danger, but it’s less helpful when this response is triggered by a change or a new situation at work or in our daily life.
Maurer suggests that small baby steps changes, as we use in workplace kaizen, circumvent the amygdala because small changes aren’t overwhelming or scary. He asked Julie to just march one minute… and then the entire commercial break, then two. Eventually, Julie was exercising for extended periods of time.
From the book:
I noticed that Julie’s attitude had changed. Instead of coming back discouraged, as so many failed exercisers do, Julie was more animated, with less resistance in her speech and demeanor….
and his patients would say:
“The steps were so small I couldn’t fail!”
Maurer suggests a similar path when trying to cut out sweets from your diet. Instead of going “cold turkey,” break off the first bite and throw it in the trash. You are taking a positive first step to weaning yourself off of candy. Combined with positive thoughts and encouragement, these baby steps can lead to larger, sustained changes.
Rather than fighting our nature, Maurer suggests we embrace our natural reactions:
“During the rough patches, understanding that fear is normal, and a natural sign of ambition, makes us more likely to hold on to hope and optimism-qualities.”
Now you might be thinking that small gradual improvements are fine, but we also need innovation (a trendy business buzzword). Maurer says there is certainly a place for larger innovation, but we also need smaller continuous improvements. That’s a theme that is consistent with our Healthcare Kaizen book.
Maurer writes that the reason behavioral kaizen works is that:
kaizen approach is a highly effective method of building new neural connections in the brain…
What is a new workplace habit, related to Lean or otherwise, that you have wanted to start, but you didn’t because it seemed too overwhelming? Let’s say your Lean consultant said you need to do an hour-long Gemba walk every day. You don’t have time for that… so it doesn’t happen and you get discouraged. It’s easier to be resigned to saying, “See, Lean won’t work here.”
But what if you followed the Maurer kaizen path and started with a 5-minute gemba walk. That’s easier to squeeze into your day, perhaps. Start small, reinforce the behavior, and you might gradually start enjoying the gemba walks to the point when you are now making time to make them happen.
Maurer also has tips and lessons about rewiring one’s brain for kaizen and changes, including leading yourself and others by asking small questions, such as “What’s the smallest step I can take to be more efficient?”, learning to practice this habit in a kaizen style by starting small…
The author shares key positive questions we can ask ourselves, including:
If I were guaranteed not to fail, what would I be doing differently?
And, if you’re trying to reach a goal (personal or workplace related):
What is one small step I could take toward reaching my goal?
To work toward successful change in the personal realm, Maurer also writes that we need to unlearn some deeply engrained notions, including the cultural teachings, including:
- “…change must always be instantaneous, it must always require steely self-discipline, and it must never be pleasurable.”
- “self-reliance is a frequently used but very poor strategy for coping with life’s adversity. That’s because we are biologically “wired” to reach out for support when we’re stressed; it’s in our nature.”
Later in the book, Maurer creates an interesting twist, as the kaizen principles (originating in the workplace) are brought BACK into the workplace, as he described how staff at a medical clinic really turned around their operations and became successful through these same ideas he had used with his patients. It all comes full circle.
Maurer also makes a great case for how we start, with kaizen, by learning how to see and address little problems. Then, we are able to see and fix larger problems. I know that has been the experience in hospitals that are using kaizen methods. We write a lot about small problems and small improvements in our book, but that’s the starting point. There will always be little problems even as we start fixing the bigger, more systemic stuff.
One negative review of Maurer’s book on Amazon was a case where, unfortunately, the reader expected to read about “kaizen events”!!
I was realy courious [sic] about this book. So many 5 star reviews. But the book useless. No information on Kaizen. I thought I might have received wrong book, but no, I received the right one. The author never saw a Kaizen. I am ordering other books on topic. I advice you do the same.
As another person who commented on his review pointed out, the reviewer has the misperception (a common one) that “kaizen” equals episodic events or workshops instead of the continuous daily practice that Maurer writes about and that we feature in Healthcare Kaizen.
All in all, I found this an enjoyable and thought-provoking read – for my personal life and in the professional realm. I’m not big on “self help” books, but Maurer’s translation of kaizen to the personal realm was a fresh take on continuous improvement. There are ideas in this book that we can all apply to our New Year’s resolutions or other improvements we hope to make.