There 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 Lean is a combination of updating our outdated methods and learning how to further improve them.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.