Kaizen: A Process for Using Small Actions to Make Big Changes

Hapatica Flowers Opening To Symbolize The Kaizen Process

Change can be difficult. Changing your job, your diet, or even your car, can often seem so overwhelming you may hesitate to start.

But an ancient Eastern philosophy called kaizen offers valuable insights into how you can conquer your fears and provides a process to move more easily through change.

Let’s explore why change is so hard, and how the kaizen method can help.

Why Is Change Hard?

A brief look at how your brain is structured helps to answer this question.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems the human brain evolved in different stages.

The oldest part of your brain is known as the reptilian brain, or brain stem. It actually has the same shape as a modern alligator’s brain. This is the part of your brain that controls your breathing, heart rate, and vital functions.

A more recently developed part of your brain is called the mammalian brain, or the midbrain. Other mammals all have a similar section within their brains as well. It controls emotions and your fight-or-flight survival response.

The newest addition to a human brain is the cortex. It’s the outermost layer that covers the rest of your brain. It essentially is what makes us human. Rational thought comes from the cortex, as well as art, science and music.

A problem arises when these three brains do not function in harmony. This is often what disrupts your efforts to make changes in your life.

For example, your rational mind may want to get more exercise, but your mammalian midbrain often responds to the idea of change with fear. This is because your midbrain is always watching out for threats in your environment and trying to keep you safe.

Instinctively, it associates stability and routine with safety. And it sees any significant changes as a potential threat. So if you start imagining making a big change in your life, your midbrain triggers your fight-or-flight response to get you out of danger.

This is why the safety of your couch suddenly looks far more appealing than heading to the gym. You have your mammalian midbrain to thank for that.

What Is Kaizen, and How Can It Help with Change?

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

~ Lao Tzu

The kaizen philosophy is summed up in the classic quote from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Kaizen is a Japanese concept that can be translated as “improvement” or “change for the better.” It encourages people to focus on pursuing small, achievable goals in increments, rather than taking on ambitious and potentially overwhelming projects all at once.

The idea behind the kaizen method is that small, incremental improvements can make a big difference in the long run.

But how does a kaizen mindset help with change?

The secret of the kaizen methodology is that it bypasses your midbrain and the fight-or-flight response.

When you take small, simple actions for continuous improvement each day, your midbrain won’t view these as imminent threats to your safety.

If you have a goal to get more exercise, you may plan to start by joining a local gym and working out for one or two hours every day. This seems like a great idea to your rational brain, but such a drastic change to your life often triggers your internal fear response.

Your midbrain may start to worry about the time it will take, what other responsibilities won’t be met, what the unknown gym is like, who will be there, how you could hurt yourself on the machines, and other often irrational fears.

Whereas, setting a goal to walk for five minutes a day is much less of a change. And therefore, the midbrain views it as much less of a threat.

For this reason, you’re naturally much more likely to carry through with small goals rather than larger ones.

Lotus flowers that symbolize change

How to Put the Kaizen Process into Practice

Implementing kaizen requires an ongoing cycle of continuous improvements. Here’s a simple step-by-step guide to get you started with the kaizen method:

1. Identify an Area for Improvement

This could be a personal habit you want to build, a process at work, or any other area in your life that needs change.

If you’re not sure where to start, try asking yourself some simple questions. Your brain loves questions and will naturally look for answers.

Questions are also very non-threatening and will allow your brain to relax as it processes possible solutions. And when your brain is relaxed, the three brain parts can work together more effectively, which boosts creativity and allows your ideas to flow.

Remember to keep your questions light. For instance, asking yourself how you’re going to make a million dollars by the end of this year would not be very helpful. A high-pressure question like this will trigger your midbrain’s fear and stress responses the same as an over-sized action plan.

A better approach would be asking yourself if you’d like to learn any new skills that would benefit your current career. Or if you’re not happy with your career, maybe ask what types of work you might like to do instead.

2. Set Small Goals

Once you have an idea of what you want to improve in your life, start considering small things you could do that would move you in the right direction towards your larger goal.

And simple questions are your go-to here as well.

For example, if you want to exercise more, try asking yourself how you could include a few more minutes of exercise in your day? What opportunities do you already have to be more active?

Also, try to keep your questions positive. Wondering why you don’t exercise enough will keep you stuck. But asking what types of exercise you would enjoy or have the most fun doing will give your brain a much more helpful starting point.

When you give your brain time to naturally come up with its own ideas on how to achieve a goal, often the result will be a plan that you’ll enjoy and all parts of your brain can stand behind.

3. Implement the Change

Choose one or two small changes to implement each day. You can do the same small things each day, or adjust them slightly over time as you progress towards your larger goal.

The key here is to stay consistent and focus on making continuous improvement efforts – even if you don’t make the progress you had hoped for at first.

Kaizen methodology is about getting all the parts of your brain working in harmony. Trying to push yourself too hard or too fast will often derail the entire process… and you’ll find yourself back on the couch.

4. Track Your Progress & Celebrate Small Wins

With any change, tracking your progress can be very helpful.

It will give you a clear picture of how far you’ve come, what goals you need to set for yourself next, and where your focus should be.

And make sure to celebrate any small successes along the way!

This could be anything from marking off an item on your daily list, to completing a course or taking up a new hobby. Celebrating these small wins will help provide positive reinforcement to your brain and keep it on track.

Also observe how the change is affecting your daily life or work. This will help you know whether the change is beneficial or not.

5. Reassess and Repeat the Kaizen Cycle

If the small change you implemented is producing positive results, great!

You can now either make it a standard part of your routine, or implement the next change you’ll need to take to achieve your larger goal.

If the change is not helping, try adjusting what you’re doing or experiment with a different change altogether.

No matter the outcome, use it as an opportunity to learn and keep going.

This continuous cycle of small, incremental changes and everyday improvement will lead to significant shifts over time.

Final Thoughts

The key to making lasting change with the kaizen process is to start small and stay consistent.

And perhaps most importantly – try to keep it fun!

When you approach change with a playful attitude, your midbrain will relax and let its guard down… which leaves you to get on with achieving your goals.

Small steps can truly add up to something big, so start taking action today and enjoy the journey towards success!


One Small Step Can Change Your Life, by Robert Maurer

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