Kaizen: All great things have small beginnings

Steffie Verstappen
October 5th, 2010
Article by: Steffie Verstappen
Kaizen: All great things have small beginnings

BOOKS | One small step can change your life: The Kaizen Way, by Robert Maurer (Workman: 2004).


At THNK, we are convinced that the complex challenges on a broad range of topics that we are faced with today require new solutions and leadership that is truly innovative. But what does innovation actually mean? Generally speaking, innovation tends to be associated with dramatic changes, but most of us will know by experience—either of the professional or the personal kind—that drastic changes almost never last. The technique of kaizen makes precisely this argument, and convincingly so. 


The Tao Te Ching, the Chinese classic text that forms the basis of religious Taoism, advises to: “confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts”. Essentially, this sums up the very core of kaizen, which is a strategy for continual improvement that explicitly acknowledges the added value of taking small steps to ultimately achieve big results. The book is an implicit criticism of the popular current focus on innovation strategies that expect big changes to occur as a result of drastic change processes. No, says Kaizen, drastic change almost never lasts: instead, we need to take small steps that will ultimately add up so that big things can occur.


According to Robert Maurer, this strategy and philosophy can be applied to all parts of modern living. It proves to be successful for individuals that are trying to reach personal or professional goals, and the same goes for businesses, organizations and corporations, even those whose core business is mass manufacturing. Toyota is the perfect example (page 119-120):


"In its years of post-World War II rebuilding, Toyota began a bold experiment. One of the company's gifted managers, Taiichi Ohno, changed one of the fundamental precepts of the assembly line. (...) [He] placed a cord at each step along the assembly line, and any worker who noticed a defect could pull the cord and bring the line to a dead stop. Ohno made sure that engineers, suppliers, and line workers were on hand to fully identify the problem and craft a solution, preferably on the spot.


Every other manufacturer found this idea absurd, a violation of the basic tenets of mass manufacturing. How could a company assemble products swiftly when the line could be stopped on a worker's whim to correct a minor defect? Contrary to this common wisdom, Ohno's method proved to be the most successful means of building automobiles. Fixing a small problem on the scene prevented much bigger problems later."


The same effect holds true when it comes to the psychology of the individual. Low-key change helps the human mind circumnavigate the fear that blocks creativity, success and real innovation. In this sense, kaizen is based on the idea that small steps will build fresh habits in our brain, because they welcome unabashed creativity and playfulness. Our requests to ourselves should be simple and restricted in scope, thereby outfoxing the fear response.