There’s a wonderful children’s story called “The Magic Geranium,” from a collection titled “Read Aloud Funny Stories” by Jane Thayer. If you haven’t heard of it before, it goes something like this:
There’s a woman, Mrs. Smith, who lives in a drab, messy little house, but feels powerless to change anything. One day her friend comes by and gives her a “Magic Geranium,” promising it will make her home beautiful.
Mrs. Smith takes it inside and puts it on the kitchen table, but then she notices how drab the table looks compared to the beautiful flower. So, she goes out, buys some paint and refinishes the table and chairs. They look great, but now the rest of the kitchen looks drab in comparison. So, she paints the kitchen, and gets new curtains. This draws attention to the drabness of the dining room, so she paints and redecorates it, too.
The cycle continues, room by room, until Mrs. Smith has transformed her entire house, inside and out, and planted a garden in the yard to boot.
When her friend returns and comments on how beautiful and bright her house looks now, Mrs. Smith says she didn’t do anything, it was the “Magic Geranium” that did it all.
I love this story because it’s such a great metaphor for how kaizen can work to totally transform our lives without us even realizing it. The steps are so gradual we may not even notice how much we’ve changed until someone else calls our attention to the dramatic difference between where we were and where we are now.
What Exactly Is Kaizen?
For those of you who, like me, don’t have a green thumb, don’t worry – kaizen has nothing to do with flowers. You don’t have to keep any greenery alive. Unless, of course, your dream is to become a gardener. If so, kaizen can help you out there too.
Most people have never heard of kaizen. If you have, you may associate it with Japanese manufacturing processes (aka, the “Toyota Way”). In business and management terms, kaizen describes the concept of making continual small improvements to boost production quality and quantity. It’s the process by which Japanese manufacturers were able to dominate the automotive and electronics industries for decades.
What most people don’t realize is that this concept or process actually started in the United States in the run up to World War II, when a statistician named Dr. W. Edwards Deming introduced it as a means to increase factory production of military supplies, because there wasn’t time to build new factories. The results were dramatic, and the power of US manufacturing is credited as being one of the critical factors that tipped the outcome of the war in favor of the Allies.
After the war, we exported the idea to Japan as we helped them rebuild. They kindly sent it back with a cool name, along with their super-reliable cars.
But what does this have to do with you? You’re probably not dreaming of building a huge manufacturing empire, or even a small one, so why should you care about kaizen?
Because kaizen isn’t just for big business anymore. The concept of kaizen can be applied to move you forward in any area of life – career, relationships, health and fitness, environment, spirituality – anywhere and everywhere that you want to change your results.
Getting Unstuck with Kaizen
Kaizen is a powerful tool for getting unstuck. Just like the “Magic Geranium” acted as a catalyst to give Mrs. Smith a starting point to begin brightening her home, a kaizen-inspired small step can pull us out of procrastination quicksand and the mud of overwhelm in which we’re stuck, and get us moving in the direction we want to go.
Often, we get stuck when we think about the enormity of a challenge or a goal – there’s so much that needs to be done, it’s overwhelming. We think we need to do everything at once, or know all the steps to our destination in advance.
Our brains shut down. We can’t even figure out where to begin. We’re exhausted before we even start.
So we wind up doing nothing.
That’s where kaizen comes in. Kaizen provides a point of entry.
Instead of looking at the big and overwhelming picture, kaizen directs our focus to something small, something easy, something we can accomplish immediately.
All we have to do is pick one tiny achievable task to complete, or one small new habit to adopt. It doesn’t matter how ridiculously small this step is, the most important thing is that we do it. Then, like a “Magic Geranium”, that one small accomplishment will shine a spotlight on the next logical step, and then the next.
Pretty soon, like Mrs. Smith, we’re getting things done. We’re moving, and we’re building momentum.
Kaizen Overcomes Inertia
One of the most fundamental concepts in physics is Newton’s Law of Inertia, which basically says that an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion, unless acted on by an external force.
This is true in life as well – when we’re stuck, we tend to stay stuck, usually until some dramatic (and typically unpleasant) event forces us to finally take action.
Kaizen allows us to skip over this process, direct the change, and ease into it gradually. For more about the brain science of kaizen and how it helps us get by our own internal resistance, see my earlier post, “Using Kaizen to Sneak Past Your Brain’s Fear Radar”.
The important thing is, once we get moving by taking a few small and painless steps, we tend to keep going.
We’re now an object in motion.
Real Life Applications
So what does this look like in the real world? How do we find our “Magic Geranium”?
Your “Magic Geranium” can be any step forward. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Anything that moves you from the realm of talking and thinking about your goal to physically doing something towards it will work. Just pick one small, easy step that you can accomplish right away.
Here are a few examples. Let’s say your goal or dream is to:
- Write a book: Pick up a how-to book to learn about writing in a particular genre or category; get a notebook and start jotting down the random ideas in your head (or jot notes on any random writing surface and set up a folder to hold them); sign up for a class on creative writing; or, check out the websites or blogs of writers you enjoy, and learn how they got started.
- Clean the garage: Pick one shelf (or a section of a shelf) or a single box or drawer to organize; find one piece of clutter each day to donate or discard; sweep the floor; or, sketch a plan of how you would ideally like your garage to be organized.
- Start a business: Do some research on the internet to find out what’s involved in starting a running a business like the kind you want; talk to other entrepreneurs in your circle of friends and associates and ask them about their experience; sign up for a class on one aspect of running a small business; or, start a running list of what you would need to get started (money, knowledge, skills, support, space, etc…) and inventory what you already have versus what you need to learn or acquire.
- Get in shape: Begin with making tiny tweaks to your current habits – depending on where you are now, this might be substituting one glass of water for one high-calorie drink, taking one extra flight of stairs a day or a walk around the block, eating one piece of fruit of a vegetable serving (or even one bite), or committing to one minute of exercise each day.
Another great thing about starting out with a kaizen-based approach is that you don’t have to be totally committed upfront. Maybe you’re not really sure if you want to write a book, change careers, or start a business of your own. That’s okay. Kaizen allows you to explore and take the first few steps – and then, if you realize a particular goal isn’t really for you, you can always stop before you’ve invested too much time, energy, or money.
Your Kaizen Challenge:
Think about a goal or dream that’s important to you, one that would make a difference in your happiness and satisfaction with your life, but one that you’ve been procrastinating on starting. Make a list of 3-5 tiny steps that you could take right now to either move forward toward this goal, or to at least explore it further.
Pick one of those steps and take action on it today!
I’d love to hear about your experiences with your “Magic Geranium” – let me know how your experiment goes in the comments below 🙂
And stay tuned for my next post on how the snowball effects of kaizen can create the big changes you want in your life!