The Kaizen philosophy is simple:  Great Change is made through small steps. And the techniques are easy, yet all – encompassing:

  • Asking Small Questions
  • Thinking Small Thoughts
  • Taking Small Actions
  • Solving Small Problems

The scientific logic is that small steps circumvent the brain’s built in resistance to a new behaviour. Thus, if you want to bring in great changes, start small. The results will be amazing!

In real life, the reverse is true, as we all believe, rather that’s our paradigm, that big turnarounds come through big thoughts; big actions and by having the capacity to solve big problems. So much so that, we are so used to living with minor irritations that it’s not always easy to identify them, let alone make corrections.  But these irritations have a way of acquiring mass and eventually blocking your path to change.  By training yourself to spot and solve small problems, you can avoid undergoing much more painful remedies later.

This month my focus would be on small problems and how important it is to solve them and not ignore them, to get big results.

Post 1945 Toyota began a bold experiment.  One of the company’s genius operations managers, Talichi Ohno, changed one of the fundamental guidelines of the assembly line.  Before Ohno came along, nearly all auto companies followed the same procedure – each chassis went down the assembly line as one worker after another performed his or her function.  The workers were to do the single task assigned to them, and that was all.  Any mistakes in the process were corrected by quality-control inspectors at the end of the line.

Ohno had a different idea, one that was apparently influenced by Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s idea of small, continual improvement.  Ohno placed a cord at each step along the assembly line, and any worker who noticed a defect could pull the cord and bring the line to a dead stop.  Ohno made sure that engineers, suppliers, and line workers were on hand to fully identify the problem and craft a solution, preferably on the spot.

Every other manufacturer found this idea absurd, a violation of the basic tenet of mass manufacturing.  How could a company assemble products swiftly when the line could be stopped on a worker’s whim to correct a minor defect?

Contrary to this common wisdom, Ohno’s method proved to be the most successful means of building automobiles.  Fixing a small problem on the scene prevented much bigger problems later. Sadly though, not every business has learned from Toyota’s experience, and the temptation remains strong to gloss over what appear to the minor problems.  Ford and Firestone, for example, ignored their “small” problem of tire failure for years – after all, there was only one Firestone tire failure for every three billion miles driven in Ford Explorers.  It wasn’t until later that these companies were forced to recognize the consequences of this one-in-three-billion statistic, when multiple deaths and media attention compelled their interest.  Another grievous example is the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.  During several previous flights, small pieces of insulating foam had broken free from the shuttle’s fuselage.  Since no major incidents had resulted, NASA redefined its foam problem as a normal occurrence during space flight – until more foam came loose during Columbia’s liftoff and damaged the wing’s leading edge, leading to the breakup during reentry that killed all seven of its astronauts. Kalpana Chawla from India, being one of them.  And how many times have we, in our haste to reach a goal, spotted signs of trouble – and then re-categorized them as “normal,” just to avoid facing them?

When we are trying to make a change, it can be appealing to ignore the slight warning signs, ones that say something’s wrong here, you need to slow down, retrace your steps, and investigate. But if we continue to evade these small problems, they will grow and grow until we create a mess so spectacular that we are required to stop the assembly line of change, announce a recall, and proceed with the painful and time-consuming process of undoing the low-big-mistake.  Focusing on the small mistakes now can save us years of costly corrections.


Learning to Spot Small Problems

It’s possible to train yourself to see small warning signs more clearly.  Try these exercise to sharpen you small-problem vision.

  1. Recall a major mistake you have made at some point in your life.  Now, take some time to consider whether there were small signs along the way indicating that things were not going according to your plans or wishes.  What actions did you have to take to correct the problem? Did you built your “assembly, line” and start all over.  Did you ignore the problem in the hopes you’d achieve your result on time anyway?
  2. Identify one small mistake you have made today. This single act, especially if you perform it fully, will raise your awareness of small mistakes.
  3. Now ask yourself whether the small mistake you identified reflects a larger problem, or if it has the potential to become one (If you misplaced your car keys, for example, ask yourself if you are trying to juggle too many things at once, or are so distracted that you might eventually make a more serious mistake).  By paying attention to this mistake, you will reduce its frequency.  If you feel this mistake indicates a more significant problem in your life, ask yourself; what kaizen step can I take to correct this situation?
  4. Ask yourself whether there are ways in which you irritate your family, friends, co-workers, or customers.  Your new awareness alone reduces the probability that you will make this mistake again, but you should also ask yourself whether this mistake is part of a bigger problem.  If you can peg the error to a larger issue, you’ll give yourself further incentive to work on it!

When Failure Isn’t an Option

Most of us would prefer not to fail, but for some people and corporations, failure means more than the account balances dipping into the red or dashed personal ambition.  It can mean loss of life, perhaps on a massive scale.  Psychologists have examined the strategies used by organizations that cannot afford even single error, and their findings are illuminating for each of us, no matter how high or low the stakes of our daily endeavors.

One of the interesting studies comes from an American psychologist.  His subjects were workers in emergency rooms, aircraft carriers, air traffic control towers, nuclear reactor centers, and fire engine companies.  He called these groups “High-reliability organizations”, or HROs – meaning that their services are so vital and precise that they are all forced to find ways not to fail.  One common characteristic of these well-functioning teams, is that they “distinguish themselves by bring able to detect incredibly weak warning signs and taking strong decisive action.”

For example, the pilots who take off and land from the decks of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are handpicked for their flinty nerves; and unflustered judgment.  There are many highly technical automatic controls to help ensure safe trips as well.  But when you are landing planes atop a ship in the middle of the ocean, one error, even a tiny one, could spell disaster.  Officers and crew are trained not to assume the system will run perfectly on its own.  Instead, they look for the slightest signal that things are going awry.  They devote rigorous attention to the nature of each landing. On the deck of the aircraft carrier there are four arresting wires that can catch the plane’s tail hook.  A pilot strives not to catch the first or second wire (because it would mean they’d landed too soon) or the fourth (which is unnervingly close to mission the deck and falling into the ocean).  The third wire is ideal. Those landings that catch the first, second, or fourth wire are reviewed so that the pilot and crew can spot and correct the causes of the deviation.

We can all implement our own high-reliability strategies, bringing this kind of thorough attention to life’s faint warning flares.  Many of us have the habit of yelling at other drivers in today’s traffic clogged roads. This is the disease of road rage. We think the problem is too small, till we hear of road rage cases.

This apparently irrelevant problem is worth one’s attention.  Some  studies have suggested that people who respond to life’s challenges with anger are seven times more likely to die prematurely from heart disease than those with the same lifestyle (including similar exercise and dietary habits) but different temperament.  If you can not learn to find a way to enjoy the ride, you may have trouble creating happiness during the bigger challenges life would inevitably send your way.  Why not use the car as a classroom for learning to control moods and focus?

The cardiac-risk statistics could be a wake-up call.  The new awareness alone would put a damper on our angry responses while driving. Instead of tensely surveying the road for “jerks” that might cut us off, our focus could be on finding an opportunity to wave another driver into our lane.  (Another technique could be to play soft music instead of listening to the news, so that your mind is being relaxed instead of stimulated).  Before long, you may report that your patience and good humor were at an all time high – and not just in the car.  This is how we could spot a “small problem” early on and recognize its significance.

For those of us who are not working under the pressure of the life-and-death situations faced by HROs, it can be hard to see the little annoyances – let alone appreciate their potential for wreaking major chaosLet’s now see some circumstances in which all ofus are especially likely to miss life’s small problems and that need extra vigilance.

“Confront the difficult while it s still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts”- Tao Te Chang

There are many situations in our organizations, which if spotted early are small in nature. The Boss –subordinate relationships; the supervisor-worker relationships; the customer –supplier relationships; Machine breakdowns; Quality problems. All disasters in these areas are seen to have a modest beginning.

This is true for non-relationship issues as well.  If you find pain in yourknee while stepping out for your first fitness walk, do you really want to ignore it?  By slowing down your pace or cutting down on the distance you cover (or seeing a doctor if the pain persists), you may prevent serious injury.  If you want to become an interior decorator but are always late for your design classes, should you not ask yourself whether you are truly committed to this career?

In all the above cases realization of the problem at the early stages is important for a timely solution.

In our anxiety to hire a senior /top executive, particularly, when we need one so desperately, (since the last one had left or was sacked without the required notice time), we land up selecting the wrong candidate and suffer the consequent damages he does to the organization. Such failures could be due to small problems like overlooking some of the predictable traits of the candidate during the interview by the selection team members. A careful selection team would not have overlooked the small issues about the candidate and would have rejected the candidate at the interview stage itself.

Thus it is wise not to ignore the early warning signs that we see clearly.


These warning signs frequently pop up.  Don’t ignore any of them!

  • Disturbing traits in a new relationship as a partner, business or life. Every time you see someone at the end of a relationship, you can ask, “Did you have early warning signs of a problem – perhaps bad temper, indifference, or substance abuse?”  Almost every time, these people admit that, yes, they had seen evidence of this flaw many times at the beginning of the relationship.  Of course, it’s not wise to reject anyone who has the tiniest flaw (otherwise, we’d all be lonely), but you can ask yourself.  Is this person aware of the problem?  Will he or she take responsibility for it and work to correct it?  Does this small flaw point to bigger issues that we need to discuss?
  • Less- than -stellar skills in a job applicant.  When you interview an applicant who doesn’t quite meet your performance standards but whom you’re tempted to hire out of a desperate need for any warm body to fill the slot, slow down and reconsider.  If you don’t have surplus of other applicants from which to choose, and if the candidate is otherwise well qualified, develop a fuller sense of his or her abilities by undergoing three or four more interviews.  Be sure to bring up the shortcoming and note how the candidate responds.  The Harvard Business Review has reported that it’s much more efficient to leave a position empty than to fill it with the wrong.
  • Angry or critical self-talk.  By this I mean the internal voices that say, why don’t you just give up?  You’re never going to be smarter or richer or thinner.  It’s a myth that this kind of harsh self-treatment will goad us into better performance. In reality, it stimulates the fight-or-flight response and stops progress in its tracks.  You can quiet these voices by bringing your awareness to them – and by taking the small steps of kaizen, which are designed to calm the stress associated with change.
  • Small persistent signs of pain when exercising.  It’s perfectly normal to experience muscle fatigue and soreness during a workout and afterward, because the body builds muscles by tearing them down. (If you begin an exercise program with small kaizen actions, you probably won’t get much or any soreness at first).  But if you experience pain in you joints or if your breathing becomes very labored, it’s time to cut back and may be take a few days off.
  • A quite but nagging feeling that something is wrong, if you develop the sense that the step you’re taking or the goal you have in mind isn’t right, give your inner wisdom the respect it deserves.  By paying attention to this wisdom, you can extinguish a tiny flame before it becomes a three alarm fire.

Some times it’s hard to spot small problems because, paradoxically, the damage they inflict can be so great that we assume the source of such horror must lie in deeply complex troubles.  This is true for marriages, careers, addictions, corporations, and even for world-wide health disasters.

Many of us are unaware that diarrhea kills a million children around the world each year. Global health care expert and governmental organizations have attempted to reduce it’s occurrence through large-scale costly solutions, such as delivering improved plumbing systems to the stressed areas or introducing oral re-hydration therapy to the medical facilities that serve these children.  These efforts are laudable and useful, but they demonstrate blindness to one very small problem that leads to diarrhea: dirty hands. In the countries where fatal childhood diarrhea is most prevalent, soap is usually present in the house, but only 15 to 20 percent of people use it before handling food or babies.  When people keep their hands clean, diarrhea cases can be reduced by more than 40 percent.  It is easier to teach a person to prevent diarrhea by washing his or her hands than it is to instill new plumbing   across a continent or to supply a therapy after the disease has taken hold.

The small steps of kaizen and the giant leaps of innovation are not mutually exclusive; used together; they become a formidable weapon against even the most profound, complex, and apparently unsolvable problems.  Where people are up against a thorny problem they’ve been unable to resolve, we generally advise them to focus on kaizen first.  Once they appreciate small steps, they find that they’ve developed an intuitive sense for when innovation is appropriate and how to mix the two.

When we face personal crises, the kaizen strategy of solving small problems offers consolation and practical assistance.  If we are involved in a lawsuit, or fall ill, or find that the economic tides are leaving our business high and dry, or our partner is falling out of love with us, we cannot fix our circumstances with one quick, decisive moment of innovation.  During these crises, the only concrete steps available are small ones.  When our lives are in great distress, even while we are feeling out of control or in emotional pain, we can try to locate the smaller problems within the larger disaster, and perhaps apply any or all of the kaizen techniques to move us slowly in the direction of a solution.  But if we are blind to the small, manageable problems, we are more likely to slip into despair.

Organizations realizing importance of handling small problems are matured and strong enough to meet the competitive challenges. They keep their people; suppliers and all connected with them motivated and energized. They realize the importance of motivation. A small pat at the back of man does wonders and they know that and practice that day in day out. That’s the gift of knowing kaizen after all.

Look at the problems you have faced in your life or organization, so far. In 90% of the cases, you will realize that the origin was only a small issue. Test this today.