Continuous Improvement

Cyclist riding bike

We’re more than half-way through the year and I wonder if you’ve followed through with your New Year’s resolutions. Did the changes stick or are you waiting for January 1 to try again?

Thankfully there is another option. Look at what you’re doing now and apply the principles of Kaizen to make tiny, consistent progress toward your goals.

The History of Kaizen

Kaizen is a Japanese term for “good change.” It’s derived from the word “Kai” meaning “change” and “Zen” meaning “for the better.” The term Kaizen was made famous by Masaaki Imai, a Japanese organizational theorist and management consultant, in his book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. The Japanese began using Kaizen after World War II and became well-known when it was implemented by Toyota. The Kaizen philosophy encourages employees to identify areas for improvement and then implement the suggested changes.

Kaizen and Sports

The British Cycling Team provides a great example of Kaizen. Before 2003, the team was terrible. It had won only a single gold medal in the Olympic games and never – in the 100 history of the Tour de France – won this event. According to the story reported in Atomic Habits, the team was so bad that one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the cycling team for fear it would hurt sales.

In 2003, Dave Brailsford was hired as the team’s new performance director. Within five years, the British Cycling team won 60 percent of the gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. At the 2012 Olympics, the team set nine Olympic records and seven world records. In 2012, the team won the Tour de France and continued their winning streak with five Tour de France victories in six years. (Source)

This was all done with small changes. Dave Brailsford explains. “By experimenting in a wind tunnel, we searched for small improvements to aerodynamics. By analyzing the mechanics area in the team truck, we discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So we painted the floor white, in order to spot any impurities. We hired a surgeon to teach our athletes about proper hand-washing so as to avoid illnesses during competition (we also decided not to shake any hands during the Olympics). We were precise about food preparation. We brought our own mattresses and pillows so our athletes could sleep in the same posture every night. We searched for small improvements everywhere and found countless opportunities. Taken together, we felt they gave us a competitive advantage.” (Source)

Does Dramatic Change Work?

The opposite of the Kaizen philosophy is the New Year’s resolution approach — making an abrupt, massive change in your life or business.

I’ll admit that one of my guilty pleasures was watching The Biggest Loser, a personal transformation show where morbidly obese people compete to lose the most weight. This is an excellent example of dramatic change. Sedentary, overweight individuals were sequestered at a ranch with trainers and healthy food. The contestants underwent intense challenges, together with restricted calories and long hours of workouts, and many lost in excess of 100 pounds. In the final episode of the season, newly slim contestants are shown alongside their before pictures. The result is dramatic and inspiring.

If you’ve struggled with your weight (as I have), being a Biggest Loser contestant might have a lot of appeal. It’s a big, bold change. There’s only one problem – it doesn’t work long-term.

Researchers studied 14 contestants who participated in the 30-week competition. Contestants started at an average weight of 328 pounds and ended at an average weight of 200 pounds. Six years later, when the six men and eight women went to the National Institutes of Health for follow-up measurements, their weight, on average, was back up to 290 pounds. Similarly, percent body fat started at an average of 49 percent, dipped to 28 percent and returned to 45 percent over time. In addition, contestants’ metabolic rate fell from 2,607 calories per day at rest before the competition, which dropped to about 2,000 calories per day at the end. Only one participant hadn’t regained any weight. In summary, the dramatic short-term weight loss did not last and the contestant’s lower metabolic rate made maintaining their weight loss even more difficult than before the show. (Source)

I heard the author of this study, Kevin D. Hall of the National Institutes of Health, speak at a conference. He reported that the participant who didn’t regain any weight was an understudy who didn’t appear on the show. She lost her weight at home without any support from the show. Not dramatic, but apparently effective.

Using Kaizen to Change Your Habits

Employing the Kaizen approach is the opposite of the Biggest Loser approach. You begin by analyzing your current eating habits and setting a goal. Then you make tiny, barely perceptible improvements in what you are eating.

For instance, let’s say that your goal was to become vegan and eat only plant-based foods. This is a dramatic change because your current diet includes a lot of meat and dairy. You could take a dramatic approach and toss all non-vegan foods into the trash. But are you ready to put almond milk in your coffee or grill veggies instead of meat?

The Kaizen approach is to improve your eating habits by 1 percent. Ideas might be:

  • Research yummy vegan recipes and have a meatless meal on Monday nights.
  • Start using a dairy substitute in your morning coffee.
  • Take a non-meat dish to a family barbecue.

As you gain success and confidence, you can make another tiny improvement. Perhaps you make all of your Monday meals vegan or add dairy substitute to your lunchtime coffee. Eventually, the cumulative impact of these small changes will pay big dividends.

Coffee and Kaizen

Since I have been experimenting with Kaizen in my business and personal life, I’ve discovered that incremental improvements are very empowering.

One example relates to my morning coffee. I love my morning coffee and want a cup as soon as I wake up! However my dog isn’t very understanding. She wants to be fed as soon as my feet hit the floor and ranked my coffee-making as secondary to her needs. How could I employ Kaizen to improve this situation?

Honestly it took a while to find something that worked. The final solution was simple. I generally have fried eggs for lunch, so I’m standing at the stove for two minutes while they cook. My small improvement was to rinse and refill my coffee pot during that time, so it’s ready for the following morning. It takes no time to switch the power on and have freshly brewed coffee ready after I’ve fed my dog. This tiny change in routine has made my morning much more enjoyable!

Kaizen Changes for your business

Look at your business goals and try to make tiny improvements. Here are some ideas:

  • Want to be more active on social media? Create a weekly Instagram post every Monday morning.
  • Want to have your blog posts rank better on Google? Spend ten minutes every Tuesday and optimize one blog post for Search Engine Optimization.
  • Want to start using video? Create a short Facebook Live every Wednesday morning at 10:00 AM.
  • Want to get free publicity for your business? Subscribe to Help a Reporter Out (HARO) and read through reporter requests every Thursday morning. If appropriate, respond to a reporter’s query.
  • Want to get a handle on your finances? Spend five minutes on Friday morning looking at your account balances.

As you can see, these are all easy actions that take only a few minutes. Once you gain confidence – and a track record of success – you can expand these actions. For instance, you might expand your Instagram posting from once per week, to twice a week, and eventually start posting every day.

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