The Easiest Kaizen Trick in the World

By Jon Miller Updated on July 10th, 2016

2There are many tips, tricks and techniques that lead to shortcuts on the continuous improvement journey. I call these kaizen tricks. Many so-called “lean games” such as the 5S letter game, the catch ball game, the A puzzle etc. make use of them to open people’s eyes to the possibilities. Often these are less shortcuts than seeing there is already a path through the jungle, if we would only look down at our feet rather than into the bush.

The first step in lean is to agree that drastic improvement is possible, and to accept that there are objectively better ways of doing almost anything. Working in small or ideally single-unit flows is superior to batching due to fluid dynamics-like effects across process chains. Limiting strategic objectives, daily priorities and to-do lists to 3-to-5 rather than 25 is more productive because our attention and decision making will otherwise get overloaded. When workplaces are well-organized, we spend more time doing the work and less time in getting to work. Lean is a combination of updating our outdated methods and learning how to further improve them. It is not necessary to understand the scientific basis for why lean methods work, but it can help.

This week I came upon some scientific backing for a kaizen trick that may be the simplest of them all. The results of a large study published in Frontiers in Psychology revealed that thinking ‘I can do better’ really does improve performance. Over 44,000 people across 12 experimental groups took part in a study of which motivational techniques helped improve performance in an online game. They found that self-talk was the most effective. In the real world problem solving is often more complex and challenging than trying to improve online gaming scores, which are often essentially hand-eye coordination exercises. With only self-talk, we hit an improvement plateau once the obvious adjustments have been made to our play technique. We need to study the underlying mechanisms of the problem, learn more sophisticated improvement techniques, maybe even get a coach. But this all begins with the self-talk of “I can do better” and any improvement certainly ends prematurely without it.

An amazing thing about the brain is that it can change itself just by thinking about changing itself. It requires intent. It requires repetition. It requires action following the thought. It may seem too simple, but it is true in essence. Whether we call it motivation, creation of improvement habits, overcoming mental blocks, or simply dogged persistence, thinking we can improve leads to actions that result in improvement over time. Most kaizen tricks, and lean management in general, have a lot to do with getting out of our own way. Whenever we experience failures, setbacks or are beset by doubt, it helps to remind ourselves, “I can do better” because we really can, and the sooner we get back to trying the more likely we are to improve.

  1. Joe

    July 11, 2016 - 9:31 am

    This takes so much of the emerging neurobiology of leadership and self/workplace improvement and makes it so easy to understand and accessible. I am so grateful for your thinking on this topic.

  2. Jon Miller

    July 11, 2016 - 4:40 pm

    You’re welcome Joe. So glad t0 helps.

  3. Robert Thompson

    July 12, 2016 - 8:01 am

    When it comes to kaizen a difficulty is that many people perceive change as something negative. Worse still, they consider it a threat. As Peter Scholtes wrote, “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” And people definately do resist if a change is forced on them. And this is one of the problems with kaizen, Six Sigma or other tools. Unless the company provides holistic, well understood reasons for change, then company wide buy-in will be lacking.

    I find that moving away from just an internal focus is a good place to start. As Margaret Wheatley wrote, “People support what they create.” So, engaging with people to develop an awareness of the bigger, external picture creates a more rounded case for Kaizen. If people feel they have a good understanding of these external drivers then they are much more likely to be more supportive.

    And they are also more likely, in my opinion, to have an, “I can do better” mindset too.

    • Burrell King

      July 13, 2016 - 9:27 am

      Best statement on this thread. Well said.

    • Mike

      July 14, 2016 - 8:57 am

      Well said Robert.

  4. Mike

    July 14, 2016 - 8:57 am

    It is my belief there are like 100ish studies on the impact of self-visualization, and that “imagining” or thinking about an activity, combined with practice, supports the assertion that imagery like “I can do better” results in (statistically) superior performance. The first study that I became aware of in this area was one related to shooting free throws (basketball), back from the 1980’s. It was a TV show, but recently saw a study PDF like it that corroborated my recollection. Also, on a related topic, I suggest positive verbal and visual elements, as I believe this helps develop people/teams faster too.

  5. William Ryan

    July 15, 2016 - 11:22 am

    Excellent article Mr. Miller. I learned that the secret to improving actually begins with one self should be always the first step. We all must learn to become faster, cheaper, better as the gate keepers to the lean journey. Always remember the 5 pillars of TPS-Lean are: Respect, Challenge, Kaizen, Gemba and Team Work. We all must learn to become thrifty and learn to see and remove waste of all types. If we strive for perfection we can capture excellence but it must start with you to become a “Can Do ” operation and company.

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