SF and Kaizen – not all small steps are equal?

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.)


4 responses

  1. Really neat distinction Mark, many thanks. And of course it doesn’t exclude the possibility the in SF dialogue the client/group is already reasonably clear on the ‘future perfect’ too I guess.

    1. Hi Trevor, yes – sometimes people are clear on the ‘future perfect’ or desired direction but are lacking the momentum (ie looking at what’s already working or has worked before in similar situations). I think that clarity in the newly coherent direction is supported by both a future description and various past descriptions. Also remember the assumption that ‘change is happening all the time’ – so the reasonably clear FP might become even more clear, and indeed change somewhat, during the process and conversations.

  2. nicolasstampf | Reply

    Hello Mark,
    I do some Lean coaching (and read your excellent book). Kaizen, which mean continuous improvement, is at the heart of Lean management.
    It’s really about A) having a clear direction (Future Perfect?) of where we want to be in terms of 1) security of work, 2) easyness of the work, 3) quality, 4) delay, and 5) cost (in this order) and then B) going step by step in the right direction.

    Of course, the steps to be taken should be decided by the employees, not their management, as the underlying objective is to develop employees, not have the management create the solution. Moreover, the employees are the ones with the best knowledge as to what could be done (or what worked/works already) to improve the situation. Also, as they’re the ones working (not the managers!) this really means that their skills and resources need to be used, not someone else’s.

    Of course, traditionnaly, kaizen’s small steps were regarding problem solving. But since any improvement must be standardized, any new best practice is also always standardized as well. So, there’s nothing in Kaizen that prevents a solution focus way of improving. I’d evend are to say that 1) it’s most of the time already done (provided you search for that 🙂 and 2) it would be more motivating for employees to make improvements that way rather than always focusing on problems…

  3. Mark,

    My most immediate response is that kaizen and small steps are definitely not one and the same. It all depends in the context they each come from. While SF ‘small steps’ are typically used to help someone move TOWARDS a goal or a dream, Kaizen is a small step AWAY from where we are now (which is deemed not good).

    In addition the beauty of Small Steps is in breaking a big idea down to the smallest step possible. Kaizen is the accumulation of many small steps in one direction. Each one may or may not build on previous ones.

    Finally, SF’s small steps is an incredibly emergent tool (that’s why it is such a great tool) whereas Kaizen is a lot more planned.

    Yes they can mean something very similar and be used together if you apply a strength lens to the word Kaizen and to the activities that take place in a kaizen event/blitz. Small steps is an incredibly useful tool to integrate when implementing change small or large.

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