Little Steps Can Take You To Big Places

My parents are New Zealanders, with deep British roots. When we were growing up, English-style tea parties were the family’s standard form of celebration. Even the smallest child was free to enjoy a cup of tea, loaded up with lots of milk and sugar.

As a weight-conscious young teen, I wanted to break the sugar habit, but I wasn’t about to give up my tea. Leaving out the sugar seemed just too hard, but I decided to reduce the amount so gradually that I’d never even miss it. I started by removing a single grain of sugar from one of my normal three heaping teaspoons per cup. Every day I tried to remove a few more grains, and – after more than a year – I had learned to enjoy sugarless tea without a single moment of feeling deprived.

Years later as a campus activist, I wanted to bring about change at my university. I didn’t think I could make much of a difference, but I decided to apply the “sugar grain principle.” I committed myself to take at least one small step a day to toward greater equality for university women.

As it became more difficult to come up with a daily step, I moved further and further out of my comfort zone. Eventually I created a radio program, convened a women’s group, and became the first woman in our MBA program. Ultimately I was the assistant to the president for affirmative action. (For more on that story see: http://www.ohio.edu/outlook/05-06/October/63f-056.cfm )

I kept the sugar grain principle in mind as I worked with women who were eager to move into professional worlds that had long been closed to them. I would urge them to envision the careers they really wanted, and then start taking steps, without worrying too much about the length or course of the ultimate path.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that “Kaizen” is the term that more learned folks use to describe the technique of creating big change with very tiny steps. The Kaizen approach to achieving excellence was rooted in the early days of World War II, when doing more with less was a patriotic mandate for U.S. manufacturers. After the war, Dr. W. Edwards Deming took American ideas for continuous improvement to Japan, where they quickly became part of the business culture.

“Kaizen” is roughly translated as “improvement,” and in management discussions the term generally refers to “continued and gradual improvement.” In a Kaizen company, improving all processes and providing better service to customers is everybody’s job, and even the most modest suggestion for better performance receives consideration.

For individuals, Kaizen means that very small steps can lead to sweeping change. Even if you face serious obstacles, you can move toward big goals by starting with the tiniest imaginable steps. For example, you can apply Kaizen in your personal life by launching a fitness program with just one minute of walking each day.

Proponents of positive psychology say that Kaizen works so well because it overcomes fear and resistance to change, it subdues negativity, and it builds new neural pathways. You can start the Kaizen process by defining your goal and then asking yourself: “What tiny step can I take toward that goal?” Here are examples of how you might apply Kaizen in your life:

• To reduce your caffeine addiction, mix a little bit of decaf into your regular cup of coffee, and then gradually change the proportions over time.
• To rebuild your network, start by making just one phone call to a new or neglected contact each week.
• To find a new job, commit to taking just one very small step every day. A “step” might be mailing off a resume, touching base with a former colleague, or signing up with an on-line placement service. To meet your one-a-day goal you’ll probably have to get creative, and the resulting long shots may turn out to be the most valuable steps of all.
• To clean up the stacks of paper in your office, see how much progress you can make in sorting through a single pile for just one minute a day. Make a game of it, gradually increasing the length of your daily clean-up sessions, and racing through as much clutter as possible in the allotted time.
• To establish a meditation practice, start by focusing on your breath for a minute a day.
• To become more productive, ask yourself each day: “What small thing can I do to be more efficient than I was yesterday?”

• To defuse conflict with a colleague, each workday ask yourself: “What is one thing that I appreciate about this person?”

• To reduce your daunting TODO list, ask: “What annoying task can I get out of the way today?” By training yourself to regularly spot and tackle small problems, you can avoid some big messes.

If you want to read more, consider “One Small Step Can Change Your Life – The Kaizen Way,” by psychologist Robert Maurer. With this readable little book, Maurer introduces the Kaizen approach to management, and illustrates how Kaizen techniques can help you to reach your goals and achieve excellence in your personal life, as well as in business.
The science, Maurer says, is irrefutable: Small steps can circumvent the brain’s built-in resistance to new behavior. And the same approach, he says, can help you improve your attitude. For example, if you tend to berate yourself he suggests that you ask: “What is one thing that I like about myself today?”
Years ago I heard Maurer lecture about Kaizen. When he asked the audience for real life examples, I offered my sugar grain experience. It was fun to the see that, with a few changes in the facts, he included my story in his book.

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Bev, a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, is an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice.

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5 comments on “Little Steps Can Take You To Big Places
  1. Before someone called it Kaizen I just called it Bev’s theory of random activity in the late 80s – from when you counseled me to try three things a day toward my new goal. So far, so good so I hope Kaizen doesn’t mind if i continue to call it Bev’s theory.

  2. Bev Jones says:

    Ken, thanks for your comment. The “theory of random activity” adds another important element — the idea that the steps needn’t lead along a linear path. I often say “things” or “grains” instead of “steps” to get away from the image of one foot after the other. The best approach seems to be to broadcast many little grains — play many long shots. The real breakthroughs seem to come after the obvious steps have been exhausted and — when you are desperate to do something, anything, to meet the day’s quota — you step out of the zone of comfort and order and move into creativity. Thanks again — Bev

  3. The owl of Minerva takes flight at night. Go Buckeyes!

  4. Andrea Wilkinson says:

    Bev,

    Your ezines and new blog are brilliant ways to shed light on the most difficult of tasks. Thank you for the reminder that “keeping things simple” is the best medicine for whatever ails the body or soul. —

  5. Sherry says:

    Bev – I was thinking of the sugar grain principle just this week. It was a powerful lesson you taught me and I have used it time and time again. when tasks seem insurmountable, I think of it and take one step at a time. In fact, that’s how I got through something as massive and unpleasant as expense reports for our company this week. And now I feel accomplished !

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