The Kaizen Effect – a dramatic life hack:
The Kaizen Effect, or “the rule of continuous improvement” as it’s also known, was first introduced to me a few years back by one of my athlete clients. Looking back on things today, it’s safe to say that it profoundly changed my life for the better, not just in business, but also in many aspects of my personal life.
The word “Kaizen” is Japanese, and is loosely translated to mean “continuous improvement”.
During WWII, American companies were all scaling back, and were taught this new philosophy of rather than focusing on rapid expansion and high expenditure, to look for areas within the existing business to make small, effective improvements instead. By making small improvements every day that may not even be noticeable, over time the compound effect would show huge gains.
Ironically, once the war was over, American companies went overseas to help the Japanese rebuild, by teaching them this very same continuous improvement theory, while at the same time companies here in the U.S. threw all those “old” plans out the window, and went back to their much more ambitious (and often unattainable) plans for growth. As a result, in the recent past we have seen Japanese auto makers as well as other Japanese corporations overtaking their U.S. competitors, and we have seen executives of Toyota being asked to speak to U.S. auto executives to teach them about the “Kaizen effect“ – the very strategy we taught the Japanese to begin with.
The idea is based on the concept of rather than looking to make huge improvements or big gains, you look for small, continuous improvement. Kaizen is often referred to as the strategy of 1% gains, and that is where the HUGE difference lies.
Warren Buffet always talks about the effects of compounding on his investment portfolio, and that is exactly what you should be looking for in your personal improvements also – don’t bother looking for that pie-in-the-sky stock or get rich quick scheme, just focus on making small changes every day that over time will make a huge difference.
Let’s say you apply this method to sales, and let’s assume you don’t like making sales calls. If you start off by just making one single call on the first day, and every 3 days, you add another call. By the end of the year you will be making 100 calls PER DAY, and it has all been done in very manageable increments.
If you start with a single push up per day and you add one more every 3 days, you have gone from doing a single push up to more than 100 in a year. Can you imagine what a difference it would make to your fitness and appearance, yet you are doing it in a way where you barely notice the difference?
On a personal level I was introduced to this by one of my athletes, and shown how it applies in sports. All the “overnight success stories” that we hear about are really just that – stories.
What is really behind it all, is year after year of training to achieve small, continuous gains. By breaking down what may look like huge goals into smaller pieces, they look a lot more achievable, and when you break them down even further into 1% chunks, you may start to believe that you can get there.
Another beauty of Kaizen is that it is perpetual – to maintain your gains and improvements you need to work on them continuously, so your personal improvement journey is never finished.
It also serves as a great contrast and antidote to get rich quick schemes, helps preventing burnout, and from personal experience at least you are much less likely to quit if you are constantly within reach of the next “goal”. Focusing on the “big” goals often overwhelms us and forces us into inaction, and your grand plan for world domination or winning an Olympic gold medal is never put into work.
If you start from where you are today and your end goal is “I want to be richer than Bill Gates”, with no intermediate stops, then I can almost guarantee that not only will you not get there, you probably won’t even bother trying.
It is human nature in these situations to start looking for “hacks”. Rather than taking the long journey of small goals, we want to look for a silver bullet that will help us get wherever we need to go – a new great diet, the next Facebook or Google, the latest guru telling you all the things you can do “if only you want to do it bad enough“ and all these things are very unlikely to come around and help you. Once these hacks don’t work out, the most likely outcome is giving up and quitting.
In my own personal experience, I used Kaizen to learn how to finally be able to practice “mindfulness”. Starting out I was VERY ambitious – I was planning to do 30 minutes, twice a day, and also attend some yoga classes 2-3 times per week. Naturally, I failed, and my 30 minutes were more like 3 minutes, and I got discouraged and stopped trying.
It was only once I really broke it down into smaller pieces – do one minute at a time, starting once a day, then twice a day, then three times etc, increasing the time from one minute to two minutes – it took me a long time, but finally I got better and better.
The best part is, I need to continuously keep these good habits up, or I will quickly slip back to the point where I was – self-improvement isn’t so much about where you’re going, but about continuously working to maintain the progress you have made.