book: “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: the Kaizen Way”

cover of Kaizen bookMantra: The steps were so small I couldn’t fail.
Translation: Stop scaring yourself so you won’t relapse.
Hint to reader: Rip out the last, dreadful chapter.


Evolutionary, not revolutionary. This fine book insists that when we want to change our lives, we should prefer Evolutionary to Revolutionary, that is, Incremental to Abrupt.

Certainly there’s a place for each. Evolutionary changes is better when trying out new habits (as this book elegantly points out), whereas revolutionary is better limited to strategy and direction, of your life, for example. Even then, you may come to a revolutionary, abrupt decision via small, evolutionary, incremental shifts of outlook.

And this book rightly points out the biggest problem in leaping straightaway into Revolutionary change: it provokes fear, which obstructs your will to make the change you want, gives you excuses to reverse or chicken out. If you want to start smiling at your irritating co-workers now and then, don’t start by inviting them all to your home. Just start with smiling once per week–surely you can do that. Later, try twice per week. Later, once a day. Play with it, have fun with it, even–see what happens if you compliment one of their ideas in a large meeting. If and when the other person responds in a friendly way, the rest will be easier. But the goal is to keep new commitments within a range you can handle, so you don’t risk losing face or backsliding. Start small, concentrate on that, not on doing more later. Anyone who’s made friends with a strange dog knows about incremental improvement.

I’ve often taken a revolutionary “Just Do It” approach when I thought it might work. The faster rate of improvement is not nothing, if you can get it. But still, this book’s start small & work up “kaizen” approach brings two weighty advantages:

  1. You won’t “pull something”–such as literally pulling a muscle, if exercise is your goal. You won’t advance so fast as to scare the other person, if a better or closer relationship is the goal.
  2. It gives you a better vantage toward next steps. This is really not obvious to the beginner. Say you’re trying to get from your present state we’ll label “A” (e.g., couch potato), to some desired “G” (e.g., easily running a mile). Now, ye olde Revolutionary approach is: Just Do “G”: run the mile, you wimp. Bad idea. Think hospital, pain, recovery. Not what you’re aiming for, and you probably won’t try a second time. Not good. Instead, consider starting with some modest step “B” (e.g., treadmill for 5 minutes), see how it goes. When that’s done, advance from there. So far so good. Suppose the “C” level presents several possibilities, say, C1 (e.g., treadmill 30 minutes), C2 (leg strength training), and C3 (a mile on a bicycle). Which do you do? Well, the non-obvious advantage I want to point out is that you don’t have to choose which “C” when you’re still at step “A”: instead, see how “B” goes before you choose between C1, C2, or C3. Heck, you’re free to decide on some admixture of Cs. Or you might sense that C came too fast and drop back to B for a while. That’s OK. And the same at steps C, D, E, and F. The point is that you need never over-commit, which only triggers the destructive “see, I can’t do it” mantra. Keep moving forward, adjust as you go.

Stick with this. Small changes will get you there more often than big leaps. It’s true you can’t cross a canyon in two jumps, but if there’s a bridge you should cross in a hundred steps rather than risk a single leap.

Near-tragically, in the book’s very last 4-page chapter, it goes chock-full of Dumb. Leading with (p. 173) “kaizen…requires faith”. (Faith in what is unspecified.) The author makes completely unnecessary ad hominem pleas, which is self-contradictory, even: why should the reader just take the word of an author he doesn’t know? Because of his credentials?–but credentials are evidence, not faith. And then what were the preceding 172 pages about–if they weren’t persuasive, what could the author’s “Because I said so” possibly add?

The author’s logical stumble is disappointing, especially given that he could have made two stronger, evidence-based appeals:

  1. Any reader can recognize kaizen examples from normal life. Babies crawl before they walk before they run. New athletes start with lighter gym weights before heavy, short runs before marathons. You date before you marry. You might raise a pet before raising a human. Small talk with a new acquaintance before serious talk. “Shoot first, ask questions later” gets you nowhere. To call such evidence faith means that every evidence might really be faith. “Yeah,” as they would say on West Wing, “except…no.”
  2. A second reason it’s silly to claim kaizen is doomed without faith: the reader can figure out for himself the awfulness of alternatives. If you know that you must cut back on your eating, and you know that a Big Fat New Year’s Resolution will fail, then your choices are logically few: (1) rehab/imprisonment (removing opportunity), (2) painful death, or (3) incremental steps (kaizen). I vote for (3). So would most readers.

With his flippant and gratuitous ending, the author damages his thoughtful story, as though Shakespeare closed Othello with a whooping can-can dance.

The last chapter has baffling factual errors, too, for example (p. 174): “…on the eve of America’s entry into World War II…manufacturing wasn’t a broken industry.” Is he kidding us? Not only did US manufacturing stink out loud just then, but in the following war years, any kaizen contributions were dwarfed by: women entering the workforce, diversion of materials from domestic consumption to manufacturing, issuance of war bonds for cheap funding…and this little thing called a war effort, a fight for survival.

For its cataclysmally rancid last chapter, this otherwise fine book forfeits a star. Now, if you’ll be so kind as to excuse me, I’ll visit the gym for one push-up.

Three stars. Could have been four. Pity.

“One Small Step Can Change Your Life: the Kaizen Way”, Robert Maurer, 2004, Workman Publishing.

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