Last year I was lucky enough to be lead facilitator at the TED Fellows Collaboratorium event in New Orleans. The event was to bring together the brilliant young TED Fellows group with coaches and mentors, working on real issues in quite large groups – something of a facilitational challenge. As part of my role I wrote a facilitators’ guide, stressing (as I usually do) the importance of small steps in building a bridge between a challenging situation and a workable way forwards.
The main organiser of the event made a few changes to the guide, adding the word Kaizen (in brackets) after ‘small steps’, so it read ‘small steps (Kaizen)’. This got me wondering… how are these two philosophies related?
You have very likely heard about Kaizen. Usually referred to as ‘continuous improvement’, it has a long and noble history in manufacturing and elsewhere as a way of driving change and enhancement, often with small steps. One website assesses thatToyota implements thousands of small changes a year in pursuit of higher quality and better customer service. These changes can come from suggestion schemes, quality circles, TQM activities, customer surveys and anywhere which can help the company produce better value.
In Solution Focused (SF) work, we also use the idea of small steps. These typically come following a conversation around a very stuck situation, where those concerned step around questions about causes of the problem and whose fault it all is, and focus instead on building understanding about (a) a better future, where the problems have vanished, and (b) times in the past when things have worked (even a little). The small steps then build on the solution-focused past (everything that’s working already) and move a little way towards a better future. Whatever positive change is produced (and there usually is some) can be recycled into further input for progress. I’ve just produced a Youtube video about this – well worth five minutes of your time if you don’t know about SF yet.
It seems to me that there is at least one key difference here. In Kaizen, the small steps all add up progress in a broadly known direction. In SF, where things are probably stuck initially, the clarity about direction itself is a product of the work. We might therefore say that in SF, the small steps are particularly key as they are in NEWLY COHERENT DIRECTION.
When these steps (or other emerging steps) are taken in this new direction, the impact is much more mould-breaking – a confirmation that progress is not only possible but within reach. Once signs of progress are visible, those concerned can be confident that they are somewhere on the right track and can use all kinds of methods (including Kaizen) to build on it. Perhaps this is why so much SF work is ‘brief’ – once there is direction (which is shared) and momentum (movement in that direction), then the issue becomes one of continuing and building progress.
As a ‘recovering’ physicist, I enjoy asking people what’s the bigger difference – a small step vs a large step, or no step at all vs a small step? Mathematically, anyway, (and also in my experience), the second of these (replacing no step with a small step) is hugely bigger. The stuckness, hopelessness and uncertainly are replaced with hope and energy – and some small steps. Which is a very large step indeed.
(Author’s note – the references to ‘Kaizen’ in this article refer to the practice of continuous improvement and not to my good friends at Kaizen Training (http://www.kaizen-training.com/) who are themselves great SF enthusiasts.)