Continuous Improvement

I have previously referred to the kaizen way. This approach is described in the book, “One Small Step Can Change Your Life – The Kaizen Way” by Robert Maurer.

The book addresses two questions: 
–How do people succeed?
–How do successful people stay successful?

The answer is in continuous improvement. BUT HOW IS THIS DONE?

Since a little history helps, I first briefly explain the how the approach works in organizations. Then I share how Dr. Maurer describes both how and why the approach can be used on a personal level.

For those who have read Kerry Weisner’s and my featured cover article in the March 2004 PHI DELTA KAPPAN, the name of W. Edwards Deming will be familiar. (Part 1: Creating the System at

The most prestigious award in the Japanese manufacturing industry is the Deming Award. Deming showed how to improve quality while simultaneously reducing costs. His approach was to empower people by involving them and encouraging everyone in the organization to suggest even the smallest change if it could lead to an improvement. The philosophy was to involve everyone as a source for creativity.

Japan, where Dr. Deming consulted after World War II, took the concept and made it the bedrock of their manufacturing process. The Japanese even gave it their own name: kaizen–“kai” (referring to school) and “zen,” (referring to wisdom).

A necessary requirement of any such approach is that the environment be safe and nonthreatening. (This same principle is essential for optimal success with the Discipline Without Stress where students constantly perceive that the objective of the teacher is to promote responsibility—rather than promote obedience by using bribes and punishments.)

The kaizen approach of continual improvement by taking small steps—rather than attempting large leaps—is a very effective and enjoyable way to achieve personal specific goals.

There are a few reasons for the success of the approach. The steps are so small that you cannot fail. It is highly effective in building new neural connections in the brain and bypasses the brain’s amygdalae, the storage area in the brain of emotional arousal where the “freeze, flight, or fight” response occurs.

Beginning by taking small steps lays down the neural network for enjoying a change. Small—really, really small—easily achievable steps are the goal. For example, if one watched many television programs but knew that more exercise would be beneficial, a first step would be to just stand for one minute each day for one week while watching television. The next week, you would be tempted to stand for two minutes each day—or perhaps run in place for 30 seconds. Such small steps lets you tiptoe right past the amygdalae, which could conjure up some negative emotions about exercising.

As people meet with success, they have a natural inclination to stretch themselves.

Asking questions (as used in DISCIPLINE WITHOUT STRESS is a highly effective approach. QUESTIONS ARE SIMPLY BETTER AT ENGAGING THE BRAIN. Commands to ourselves often fail to engage us—as do commands to others. A question is not demanding, not scary. It’s actually fun. So when you ask small questions, the amygdalae remain asleep and the cortex—always hungry for a good time—will wake up and take notice.

Pose questions to yourself. For example, if health were my first priority, I would ask, “In what small way can I improve my health?” “What is one way I can remind myself to drink more water?” “How can I incorporate a few more minutes of exercise into my daily routine?”

Build the kaizen habit of asking yourself small (and positive) questions. Asking a new question of yourself each day increases your effectiveness because of how the brain functions. The hippocampus decides what information to store and what to retrieve. It’s main criterion for change is repetition, so asking a question over and over gives the brain little choice but to pay attention and begin to create answers.

Kaizen is a process that never ends. Its internal reward is most satisfying: continual “do-able” improvement and growth.