Who – the Kaizen way was developed by the Americans to help Japanese after WW11 in order to support a failing economy. It was picked up by major corporations as a way to make continual small improvements, to save time and to use the resources of all workers. I was introduced to it in a book by Robert Maurer called The Kaizen Way. Maurer uses Kaizen in his private practice.
What – A method of using small improvements in order to make change happen without the usual result that occurs after radical changes (a fall back to old patterns)
Where – It has been used for sixty years in Japan and in North America.
Why - It is a way of subverting the fight or flight brain chemistry that often obstructs us in our goal to make changes beneficial to our being and our relationships.
When – How about now?
How to get started:
Make a small list of improvements you would like to make.
It might look like this (if you were me):
1. Improve my health through nutrition and exercise.
2. Keep track of my finances.
3. Spend more time with my grandchildren.
4. Relate to paper work and other ‘adult’ duties with more diligence.
Now, if you are like me, just making the list caused anxiousness to flood in. I immediately want to start a heavy-duty regime of exercise, broccoli eating and bean counting. After I have that thought, a great weariness and even sadness overtakes me.
So, I continue to read and remember that this is a project with small incremental steps. Remembering the wisdom of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, or the movie What About Bill? and the shrink’s caution to use baby steps – I slow my heart beat down and think about one of the things on the list.
For the sake of this example and possibly my waist-line I will start with the first thing on the list.
Improve my health through nutrition and exercise.
A whole flood of ideas pops into my mind with this. I should start running perhaps – seems like a quick way to work with my health – lots of exercise, don’t need a gym, very good work-out. Also, I cut out wheat and sugar a couple of years ago – I could do that – a radical change to my diet – no bread, no pasta, no cookies, no g & t’s. I feel panicky at the thought. I maintained that diet for about six months and I did feel good. But it is too hard to maintain. It took a great deal of time and I never got over wanting a nice piece of sourdough…
I breathe and ask myself a small Kaizen question.
“What small thing could I do that would improve my health?” I am so used to big radical changes or at least contemplating them that my mind will not go there. It is freaking out, my mind, but I just calmly repeat the question until it settles. “What small thing could I do that would improve my health?” An answer arises – in my daily walk with Hoagy I will run for one hundred steps. That’s all. Just that and we’ll see what happens.
One Kaizen rule is to take on the low-hanging fruit first. That is why I’m doing the run for a hundred steps – I already walk the dog most days. He likes it when I run for a bit. I don’t need to change much and we’ll see how it goes. It adds nothing to my day; it costs nothing, just run for one hundred steps on my daily walk. If I don’t walk Hoagy on a certain day, I will make sure I run a hundred steps somewhere.
Here’s another example. I want to practice every day. Sit on my cushion, do some meditating and contemplating. I know that it is better for me to do it for a short time every day then do it sporadically for longer periods. I made one small adjustment in my day that has made this a reality. Ron brings me coffee every morning – around 6 or 6:30. I lie in bed sipping my coffee and reading. Every darn day. My shrine is in my bedroom. My adjustment was to read long enough to drink half the cup of coffee and then to take my cup over to my cushion, light the candles, recite the opening chants and away I go. I haven’t missed a day since I made that decision. No problem, easy peasy.
Another one – if you are like me you might get caught up in your personal email. I only have it at home so I don’t get to worry about it at work. I read somewhere recently that one shouldn’t open the email program unless you were going to spend ten minutes there. Yikes! I’ve tried it. It’s good. I’m slowly training myself to use email as a tool not as a time-wasting bugbear. Ten minutes is a long time. I don’t want to spend ten minutes there so I only go once or twice a day. The rule is – once I’ve opened it I spend ten minutes. That means I clean up what I need to – actually answer emails and relate to the whole schmozzle of it. But only once or twice a day. Instead of checking it on the hour to see if something has come in.
Standardization is a component of Kaizen. Consider your "best practices" in a calm state of mind. Make them automatic by externalizing them as much as possible. When you get overwhelmed the practice will see you through. You won't have to consider them because you have made them automatic. Falling back on good habits is key.
Of course, many of these things are probably tools you’ve already incorporated. I know I was using Kaizen before I knew it was called that. One of my old tools has been 2 of 3. I choose three things that I want to do every day – mine are write, sit and walk the dog. I don’t feel like I’ve done my duty to my own contract unless I’ve done two of the three things. Now, in the past while, it has become more and more like I do three of the three but that is just gravy – I don’t worry about it.
What has this to do with a therapy practice?
For years I’ve noticed that people may come to me with really big and scary issues but often what makes them crazy feeling is that they know what they need to do to feel better AND they still don’t do it. Because I’m like them I get it. I know I feel better when I tend to my health, my creativity, my heart and my mind but I often – when I need it most – abandon the practices that assist me out of the downward spiral. It seemed for years to be so counter-intuitive, so down right ornery a trait that I’ve spent some time trying to grapple with it.
The brain chemistry part of this approach – the why it works part – is what has hooked me. I understand it. I get it. My mammalian brain – my amygdala – does not like change. It sees any change as a threat to survival since whatever I’m doing works well enough, as far as it is concerned. Because the only, only, only, thing our mammalian brain cares about is WE ARE ALIVE. And that makes big changes too scary to it.
I have an image that I will share with you – I think I have but I’ll do it again as it has helped me with this and might help you. My amygdala is a gorilla. It is a frat boy on a bender. It is sleepy and wants to stay sleepy unless I do something to wake it up. When it wakes it says “huh? WTF?” and it looks around with that pained look in its tiny eyes. Kaizen is like my gorilla’s sidekick – it’s the hmmmm…let’s say little girl – smart as a whip little girl – she likes the gorilla. She wants the gorilla around in case, you know, something bad happens. Then she wants him to take over and thump the bad thing or tuck her under his hairy armpit and swing off through the jungle with her – well away from the bad thing. But she doesn’t want to wake it unless it is a bad thing. So Kaizen, the little girl, says to the gorilla when he stirs, “no big deal, Gorilla, nothing worth waking up for – go back to sleep until I need you.” And that sucker does.