“Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.” John Wooden
Years ago, my kids and my wife got into the beanie baby craze. These were small teddy bears that came in hundreds of varieties. Each cost only a few dollars, so from my point of view it was a great gift. The problem is that they were so cheap that my wife thought nothing of buying one—no single purchase was painful. But over the months the purchases continued; by the time I started looking into it, we figured out that they had spent over $800 in teddy bears!
The beanie baby incident was a reminder of how small things can add up very quickly, and great transformations can happen through tiny changes patiently accumulated. That’s the central idea behind kaizen, the strategy of continuous improvement that is one of the core principles of lean thinking. It works as well in personal productivity as it does on the factory floor.
Kaizen works mathematically not only because things add up, but because of the magic of compounding. A small percentage improvement continuously applied over time means that each successive improvement is larger than the last, and that can make a huge difference over time.
But kaizen also works because of the psychological mechanism. While we’re often exhorted to set big goals for ourselves, the size of the goals can sometimes be self-defeating. Big goals can stress us out; they engage our mind’s self-defense mechanism and engender fear. How many times have you set yourself a big goal—say, a new year’s resolution—and had it fail? Kaizen can help melt resistance.
Besides improving ongoing efforts, kaizen can help you get started on things that you’ve been putting off. One reason we procrastinate on large goals is that their very difficulty can generate fear. We know it will take a large effort, so we put it off until we think we can be in a position to succeed. But often that time never comes. It’s better to take some small steps today that move us a tiny bit closer, than never to take the big steps that will get us a lot closer. There’s a wonderful quote from a mindfulness coach in One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, by Robert Maurer: “I’d rather they go home and meditate for one minute than not meditate for thirty minutes.”
Kaizen isn’t just a practice—it’s also a mindset. It’s having the attitude that your performance is not limited by fixed abilities and traits but rather is under your control. It’s about creative dissatisfaction: knowing that it is always possible to improve a process. Finally, it’s about being mindful of what you’re doing and why that opens your eyes to improvement possibilities.
Here are some small steps you can begin taking now to start implementing kaizen:
Choose an area to apply it. Kaizen can be applied to specific areas of your personal life and work, such as fitness, relationships, or learning a particular topic. It may also be applied to the way you work, such as implementing some of the ideas in this series. For example, you can make small improvements in the length of dedicated focused time you spend on a project. 5S is also a great area for applying kaizen. Although it’s a great idea to start with a blitz to begin sorting, setting in order, etc., you may not be able to get to it all at once. So, take a little time each day or each week to chip away at some areas.
Every day a little up. The header of this paragraph is a nice little phrase from The Remedy: Bringing Lean Thinking Out of the Factory to Transform the Entire Organization by Pascal Dennis. The key word in continuous improvement is continuous. You can’t develop habits in quick bursts—they must come from the patient accumulation of actions and small successes. But those small successes can become large over time. Continuous means that kaizen is not something separate from your daily work that you do once in a while when you have time or you think of it, but it becomes a part of your work. You become mindful of what you are doing and how you are doing it and improvement opportunities are more likely to become visible. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a journal or other consistent place where you can record ideas as they occur to you. You can also build in time during your morning plan or your evening’s review to remind yourself.
Set your goals lower. If you don’t have the time right now for the big goal, break it down into smaller parts and choose those.
Big changes can be OK, too. Although so far the focus has been on small changes, there is definitely nothing wrong with big breakthrough or radical transformations if you happen to think of them and have the motivation to pursue them. In fact, you can combine the two approaches. Just as companies will have dedicated kaizen events, in which they will bring together people for three days to brainstorm improvement ideas, you may occasionally pick an area you would like to improve and then take some time to think about the processes and jot down ideas.
Copy and improve. A friend of mine likes to brag that he uses the CASE method: “Copy and steal extensively.” No one has a corner on good ideas, and we can always learn from what others are doing. But blind copying isn’t enough; what worked for them might work differently in our own situation, so we should try to improve their practices and ideas. The Japanese have a word for it: yokoten.
Just remember, even though perfection may be impossible, perfecting is something you can do every day.
My high school swim coach used to love to tell the story of the old bull and the young bull, standing on a hill overlooking a herd of cows. The young bull says, “Let’s run down there and (do) one of those cows.” The old bull replied, “Let’s walk down there and (do) them all.”
I mention this in this series because so far the implication has been that using lean principles to improve personal work means getting more work done faster. So, when we strive to improve personal productivity, it’s tempting to try to pick up the pace of our work. Common sense tells me that if I want to drive from Point A to Point B, I can save time by going faster. But constantly changing from lane to lane to try to get a momentary advantage may actually slow me down, not to mention that my speed may cause me to be pulled over by the police or cause an accident. By trying to do too much, we run the risk of exceeding natural speed limits that exist for good reasons.
In weapons training, you’re constantly reminded that “slow is smooth; smooth is fast.” This speaks to the importance of flow, which brings us to the connection with lean principles. It is the idea of lining up all steps in the value stream so that they get done in a steady continuous flow with no wasted motions or interruptions. The steps taken to improve flow: focusing on the actual object being worked on (make work visible), removing impediments and rethinking work practices, all take time to implement, but the effort can cut work times in half, according to Womack and Jones in Lean Thinking.
There are limitless ways of taking time before, during and after your work to improve outputs and ultimately speed up cycle times. Here are just a few examples:
Five whys: When we encounter a problem, we want to solve it as quickly as possible so we can keep going on with our work. But if we treat the symptom and don’t get rid of the root cause, we are likely to have to repeatedly solve it. The Toyota technique of asking why five times (the number is not hard and fat) adds time to the process but forces you to think at a much deeper level and may help you uncover and address the root cause, which saves a lot of time (among other things) in the long run.
Thinking slow: I’ve written here before about the two modes of thinking we all use, popularized by Daniel Kahneman as fast, intuitive, System 1 thinking; and slow, rational System 2 thinking. Most times intuition and instant recognition of what to do serves us well, but we’re all subject to built-in biases which can lead us astray. The trick is to know when to slow down and apply careful, deliberate thinking to the problem or task at hand. It becomes particularly important in a fast-changing environment, because we’re more likely to encounter situations that are different from anything we’ve seen before.
For creativity, start fast and end slow: In my own experience, whether writing an article or completing a sales call plan, there’s a tremendous benefit in doing a first draft early and then putting it aside. Flashes of insight seem to come instantly, but actually slowing down can help here as well. Somehow the flashes seem to come much easier when they’ve been incubating in my subconscious for a while. It’s especially helpful in crafting and rehearsing an important presentation; taking the time to space out the rehearsals will spark many more improvement ideas.
Preparation: Investing time upfront in preparation is one of the best ways that slowing down can help you finish faster—and better. That’s no newsflash to anyone reading this, so I won’t waste keystrokes with the usual examples. What is amazing, however, is that preparation can improve outcomes even in situations that would seem to allow no time at all for it, such as in superfast sports activities like returning a serve in tennis or hitting a baseball. Frank Partnoy in his book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, explains that 500 milliseconds—half a second—elapse from the time a ball leaves the server’s racket to the time the receiver hits it. The first 200ms are required for visual reaction time. This “see” phase is the same for amateurs and pros alike. That leaves 300ms for the actual physical reaction, the “hit” phase. While you or I might be able to raise our racket into the path of the ball during that time, the pros can do the physical part in 100ms. The extra time is used in gathering and processing information, so that they can actually choose their shot. In other words, the ability to go fast at the end allows them time to better prepare.
Delay and persuasion: Since a big part of getting things done is getting others to do what you want done, this precept applies to persuasion as well. In persuasion, we often find that trying to convince someone before they are ready can be counterproductive. Sometimes by slowing down selling you can speed up buying, and vice versa. A buyer who feels rushed may react or shut down entirely. New ideas often take time to gain acceptance. When you’re trying to sell ideas internally, it can be tempting to go straight to the top and get a decision forced on the organization, but good luck implementing it. In negotiations, impatience and hurry can be your biggest liability. As long as time is on your side, you don’t have to accept a bad deal.
The list of ways to reduce waste is potentially limitless, and what works for one might not work for another. For that reason, we’ll keep this at a fairly high level, and only bring it down to specifics to illustrate each principle. The five principles that I’ve distilled from my reading and which I have found work well for me are:
There is a huge amount of waste in our personal work. How much actual value-adding work are you getting done in a typical day? Most of us in business, especially American business, take pride in the long hours we work, yet how often do we take stock of just how much time is wasted in a typical workday.
Keep in mind that muda is defined as any activity or input that does not add value to the customer. Reducing waste improves our value to the end customer (even if we are our own end customer), and/or lets us spend less time producing that value—so that we can concentrate on having fun.
Lean principles have a long record of accomplishment in manufacturing, and have identified seven traditional sources of muda. While some of these also apply to personal productivity, I think it will be much clearer if we create our own list that applies to personal work rather than try to apply the same definitions. I’ve come up with seven principal sources of waste in daily work—these are my own opinion, so I am sure there is scope for improvement or modification.
Focus: Distractions have to be at the top of this list because there is so much competing you’re your attention at any one time. A survey by salary.com found that the average office worker spends 2.09 hours out of an 8-hour day on non-work related activities such as cruising the internet, socializing. That’s 26% of your time, but in reality, the total percentage of time has to be much higher, because of switching costs: it takes time after even a short distraction to get fully up to speed when you get back on task.
Searching: This is probably the second most important source of muda in personal work. According to Daniel Markovitz in A Factory of One: Applying Lean Principles to Banish Waste and Improve Your Personal Performance, a Wall Street Journal survey of 2600 executives showed that they spend six weeks per year just looking for information. Throw in the time you spend looking for physical things (pen, a document you need to sign, your car keys) or electronic (files and documents, passwords), and it adds up very quickly.
Prioritization: this is related to insufficient focus, because when you are distracted you are focusing on the wrong priority. Yet it goes beyond distraction; you may be totally focused on something that does not add value. Maybe it’s because something is urgent, and not important. It may be caused by thinking too short-term. (Is it more important to mow the lawn or to plant a tree? That depends on whether your focus is short or long term)
Procrastination: This is related to distraction and prioritization, but it merits its own category because of the reasons behind it. It may be because you find a task to be unpleasant or difficult. It may be simply ingrained habits and routines. The major cost of procrastination, besides merely time wasted, is the possibility of problems festering and growing when they remain unaddressed.
Technique/skill: As someone who spends a significant amount of time banging away at a keyboard, I am woefully inefficient. I’m constantly typing something wrong and going back to fix it. In this paragraph alone, I’ve already had to backspace and fix seven typos. That’s a small example, but I’ll bet if I did a time and motion study, I would find that it adds up to a big chunk of time. On a higher level, As K. Anders Ericsson tells us (the world’s foremost expert on experts), the majority of professionals quickly attain an acceptable, undistinguished level of competence in their field and then level off. How much competence are you leaving on the table?
Knowledge: Not learning enough, or learning too much. In some cases, it’s about incomplete learning. I’m very guilty of this. I read a lot, but if you forget most of what you read, how much of that activity has been wasted? Or how many times have you had a great idea and then forgotten it because you didn’t write it down? On the other hand, you can stuff your head with unnecessary information. There’s no law that says you have to read an entire book cover to cover. Why not skip over the parts that don’t apply to you?
Underutilization: This is the equivalent of throwing away half-squeezed oranges. We also underutilize our own talent and energies. When we don’t plan a sales call or prepare for a meeting, for example, we leave performance on the table. When we don’t delegate, we may be underutilizing the time and skills of other in our network. What about things we own? For example, software—I’ve purchased applications that I’ve not used, or have only used a small subset of the total available features.
This list is obviously incomplete. None of us lack for ingenuity in finding ways to waste our personal productivity. In the next article of this series, we’ll explore countermeasures to these and other sources of personal muda.
 Motion, waiting, conveyance, correction, overprocessing, overproduction, inventory.
 I can’t claim perfection here. To show how bad I am, there has been more than one occasion where I’ve come across an interesting book on Amazon and decided to buy it, only to have Amazon remind me that I already bought it a few years ago. Sure enough, I’ll discover that I already read the book.