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?

Maurer's advice:

“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.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Very nice review Mark. Could not agree with Mauer or you more. Kaizen is about small incremental improvement. And that is the most effective way to change without using a sledgehammer. Everyone can change, but few do because they are not willing to master the incremental steps required to overcome their existing habits.

    I wonder though, is this something that can be incorporated in Standard Work? We all know we are trying to improve but should Standard Work and more specifically Leader Standard Work be used as your change agent?

  2. The application of Lean tools and methods to personal development is an important topic. Here are two early works:

    “Kaizen And You: Achieving Success Through Self-Knowledge and Constant Improvement” by Igor Popovich, 1997.

    And a paper I wrote titled “Continuous Personal Improvement”, 1998 (I was unaware of Popovich’s book when I wrote my paper).

    Also, Taiichi Ohno said: “Always think about what your next step will be. Continuously improving yourself is the mark of a true professional.” ~~ Indeed it is.

  3. Thanks for sharing Mark, Joe, & Bob. I ran across Mauer’s book in the development of Career Kaizen (Podcast #106 here). It helped me in customizing an A3 template that fit career management initiatives. Specifically the career problem statement. Most participants struggle to identify improvement opportunities when the career lens looks at the last 15-25 years. The micro to macro perspective is key to break up the problem statement so it works with the composite career to began isolating small incremental (milestone) improvements that have occurred but now rest in the shadows. We’ve found this method extremely useful in tying together career improvements from years ago that match up wonderfully in the participant’s current state and beyond.

  4. Nice review, Mark. I love the idea of small changes to get people in the habit of something before a bigger commitment. Even for something as relatively simple as a 5S on a person’s desk, I’ve had a couple people come back and say it was too much. For one, I suggested that she set a goal to just reduce her in-basket level by 50%. Then, when she was comfortable with that, 50% of the remainder, and so on. it made it easier for her than going to a zero-level in-basket. Small change to get to big change. Great concept.

  5. Appreciate your review of this book, Mark. There is an age-old (and counterproductive) mindset that says in effect – how I behave at work and how I behave in private life are unrelated. Numerous studies have shown that nothing could be further from the truth. Furthermore, if you believe durable neural pathways in the brain result from any repeated behavior – at work or at home, positive or negative – then the self-defeating nature of this arbitrary distinction becomes clearer.

    By extension, terms like “professional development” and “career growth” unwittingly promote the idea that vocational training and behavior can improve independently of personal behavioral change. In my experience, what’s called “The Toyota Way” is so successful because it’s grounded in exactly the opposite assumption. All behavior, all improvement is cumulative and impacts all aspects of our lives.

    Reading Tony Hsieh’s book about Zappos, “Delivering Happiness – A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose” I was struck by the explicit link Zappos makes between personal behavior and corporate success. “For anyone we bring onboard, the best expertise they can bring is expertise at learning and adapting and figuring new things out – helping the company grow, and in the process they will also be growing themselves….Are you a better person today than you were yesterday? How do you get your co-workers and direct reports to grow personally? Professionally? Are you learning something every day?” Indeed.

    • Zane – thanks for your comment (first time, I believe). I hope you’ll keep participating and adding your insights.

      That’s a great point that we’re not two different people at work and at home.

  6. Thank you for reviewing this work on your blog and bringing it to light for the lean community, Mark. I enjoyed the audiobook version last year. After listening to the first five minutes during the morning commute, I turned it off and instead listened to it when I had the opportunity to focus and take notes. The approach ties in well with what Norm Bodek teaches in his books about kaizen.

  7. Thanks for sharing your reading list Mark. I am excited by your critique of Dr. Mauer’s book and have ordered it. I have time to read more widely now and his will be one of the first. In my years of seeking a pathway to healing for our Native people in Alaska, I have been reading widely about Toxic Stress and its impact of the developing brain. I now understand how unresolved trauma can impact adults in our workplace. Healing our work force was to be the next step in my practice of Lean at Chugachmiut. Coupled with a no blame, no shame workplace, continuous improvement and training, I truly believed we could reduce workplace stress substantially enough to start making a difference in the other parts of our employee’s lives. I hope Dr. Mauer’s work can give me more insight. As always, you provide me with inspiration and information.

  8. Hello Mark,

    I just discovered this book review. Dr. Maurer’s technique is known as “shaping” in applied behavior analysis, and is an excellent way to encourage adoption of a new practice such as lean. Re: asking people to try some aspect of the new practice in their personal life first, I too have found that small improvement projects, personal or with a family member, lead people to exclaim “this stuff works!”. Then they are emboldened to try it at work and voila! It works there too.

    I have applied the same behavioral techniques to the problem of sustaining lean efforts in my book Sustain Your Gains – The People Side of Lean – Six Sigma. And voila! They work on sustaining as well. To Joe Dager’s question, I show how these behavioral techniques can be added to leader standard work in order to 1. accelerate improvement and 2. sustain the gains.

    My book is now available at

  9. Read this book and I’m gonna read it again. After eight years of LSS practice and leading countless Kaizen Events, I’ve taken a more personal approach to implementing the continuous improvement concepts in my discussions.

  10. What is the difference between his Robert Maurer’s two books “One Small Step …” and “The Spirit of Kaizen”? I mean do they each offer something unique so that reading both is useful, or is there too much overlap so that reading one is enough. And if so, which one?

    • Hi Mark – My recollection is that “One Small Step…” is focused on counseling and personal change, while “The Spirit of Kaizen” is more about the the application to organizations…


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