Can a Japanese Manufacturing Technique be the Secret to Self-Improvement?

Americans are terrible at sticking to goals. Just go to any gym in January and look at the crowded parking lot. The same gym will be empty a month later. In fact, 20% of people will drop their New Year’s Resolution efforts after just one week of trying and only 8% will ever achieve their goal.

What’s wrong with us? Why can’t we stick to a self-improvement goal?

The answer may be that our goals are too big.

The research of Dr. Robert Maurer, a psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center, shows that the solution to making great and lasting self-improvement is through small and steady steps.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Lao Tzu

What’s unusual about Dr. Maurer’s findings are that they come from an unlikely place, the manufacturing shop floor. The secret to self-improvement, he explains, comes from the teachings of Taiichi Ohno and Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the fathers of the Toyota Production System and Lean Manufacturing.

What can Lean Manufacturing teach us about achieving lasting self-improvement? Dr. Maurer says the secret is in the practice of Kaizen. Kaizen is the Japanese word for continual improvement. It literally means “change for better.” In the Toyota Production System, kaizen means that every employee works to make the manufacturing processes a little bit better every day. It’s the idea of small, continuous improvements.

Maurer has written a book called, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. There, he demonstrates how the Kaizen practice of small, continuous improvements can help people make significant and lasting life changes. The techniques work well to help lose weight, quit smoking, write a novel, start an exercise program, get out of debt, conquer shyness, or any number of important life changes.

“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” Robert Collier

The concept is to get started with very small steps. For example, if you’re trying to get fit, just start by walking in place during the commercials of your favorite show. If you’re trying to drink more water, start with one glass before supper. Choosing a very small step is the key. Dr. Maurer says, “The criteria for the smallness is that the step is so ridiculously small that it requires no willpower, self-control or discipline. There’s not going to be any pushback. That’s how you know it’s going to be a small enough step.”

By doing this step every day, you begin to develop a new habit. Then, using the Kaizen practice of continual improvement, you try and increase the activity a little bit each day. The trick is to be sure that the improvement is so “ridiculously small” that it requires no willpower.

Before you know it, you’ll have mastered a new skill and developed a new habit. The goal, as Maurer states, is to get just 1% better each day.

Dr. Maurer’s research shows that the secret to making lasting life changes is not in creating big, audacious goals but by taking action in the form of small, continuous steps. He correctly asserts that it’s better to exercise for only one minute a day than to plan an hour workout and never do it.

In Lean Manufacturing, Kaizen teaches us to take action every day to make our processes a little bit better. Dr. Maurer’s approach does the same. The key is to take small steps daily towards our desired state.

What do you think? Can the Kaizen philosophy help us make lasting changes in our lives? Will it be frustrating for people looking for quick results? Is it possible to develop new habits with this simple concept? Let me know in the comment section below.

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