How Fresh Starts Motivate Us to Keep Improving

By Jon Miller Updated on October 15th, 2017

When a method works, it works even when we don’t understand how. If we do understand, we can find wider application for the method. So it was interesting to stumble across a human behavior called the fresh start effect as a possible explanation of what makes frequent PDCA cycles such an important part of continuous improvement.

A 2014 paper by Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman and Jason Riis showed that people have renewed self-control, extra motivation to pursue goals, and set personal commitments at the beginning of what the called temporal landmarks. These landmarks in time are starting points for new cycles in our lives. They can be a new year, a new week, the first day of summer, a birthdays, and so forth. Drawing a new start point in time helps people to leave their mistakes behind and look forward to a better future. There is something about anchoring our thoughts on these temporal landmarks that makes our past failures seem farther in the past. The paper shows this has a powerful effect.

The PDCA cycle is all about fresh starts. We Plan, Do, Check, Adjust and Plan, again and again. We set a plan of future action, try it, check the results, and then reflect to make adjustments before starting a new plan. PDCA allows forward progress through frequent, small actions in a cyclical fashion. Each new cycle offers a fresh start to learn from mistakes. We can leave our failures behind and work towards an aspirational future.

There are several ways that practices falling under the lean management take advantage of the fresh start effect. Daily huddles that allow teams to review the status of projects, priorities and challenges for the day’s work, and priorities for improvement. Monday morning kickoff for week-long kaizen events. TQC-style small group activities pursue themes in 6-month cycles. Hoshin reviews on a monthly, semi-annual and annual basis to check and adjust strategy deployment. Lean organizations don’t improve just when they can make time for improvement, they schedule improvement across key landmarks in time.

Big changes have more riding on them, less chance to stop, reflect and redirect when things are not going well. Big projects may have deadlines, milestones and other temporal landmarks, but they allow fewer opportunities to take advantage of the fresh start effect. When we’ve already committed a certain amount of time, money and resources, it makes large changes in direction harder. The smaller bites we take in solving large problems, the more we take small steps forward. The more frequently we can check, the smaller the adjustments. The more we review, the more frequent cycles of learning. Regardless of the size of our projects, we can benefit from scheduling “reset” points periodically, allowing us to face our mistakes, leave them behind and get a fresh start.

Some years ago I stopped making New Year’s resolutions. January 1st didn’t feel like the start of a new cycle. This was probably due to running a global consultancy with offices and customers somewhere in the world always open for business.  Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Memorial Day meant nothing in Europe. China didn’t skip a beat on Christmas or New Year’s Day. My personal goal-setting was more linked to family birthdays, the start or end of my children’s school year, catching up with old friends after not seeing them for a long time. It turns out these were temporal landmarks helping me leave mistakes behind, offering a fresh start.

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