Kaizen is the Japanese term for the technique of taking small and steady steps to achieve big and lasting results.
Despite its name, kaizen was first used in a systematic way during the Great Depression in
it was not called kaizen, as the nation fought its way out of joblessness and
bank failures. Then World War II threw
the world into chaos, and American leaders realized how desperately the Allies
needed military equipment. The
government created training courses called Training Within Industries (TWI) and
offered them to corporate America. Rather than suggesting the corporations use
innovation, the TWI suggested managers use “continuous improvement.”
Managers were encouraged to look for the many small things that needed improvement. Though some doubted that this “small potatoes” technique could produce results, they soon saw that small changes and improvements added up to big results.
This philosophy was brought to
following the war, when General MacArthur’s occupation forces started the
massive program of rebuilding the devastated country. Since then, Japanese businesses have used
this technique to achieve their business goals, making them a major player in
the world economic campus.
WHAT KAIZEN CAN MEAN TO YOU
Fine, you say, but what does that have to do with writing a book? I’m not writing a Japanese philosophy book or an American history book! Nor am I writing a how-to book for corporations.
You probably aren’t writing any of these books, but maybe you need to employ the kaizen philosophy to finish the book you are writing.
Let’s talk a bit about kaizen first, then we’ll get into how you can use the techniques to start, write, and finish your book
When individuals or businesses want to make a change, they typically look to innovation. After all, isn’t innovation, with its sometimes shocking, even radical reform, the fastest and best way to shake things up and get things done?
Innovation can be great. It can also be intimidating to the many of us who resist huge changes and major disruptions in our lives.
Kaizen is the opposite of innovation. While innovation is based upon widespread, even drastic change and vision, kaizen builds upon the steady steps that, when put all together, end up in something wonderful.
1. Decide what task you want to do (write a book). Break this task down into small, achievable steps. Decide what kind of book you want to write—picture book, grade school reader, YA mystery, new adult, romance, whatever. Decide upon the name of the protagonist. Make a list of other characters. Write down major plot points. Take it one (small) step at a time.
2. Decide how much time you are willing to spend on this task each day. Can you spend only seconds a day on your book? Yes, I said seconds. Kaizen is small steps, remember? You will build on this, turning seconds into minutes, then hours. If you decide you can spend only sixty seconds on your book, then seize that and rejoice in it. You can spend those sixty seconds on asking your character questions. (See below.) You can spend them on deciding upon your character’s name.
3. Spend that amount of time every day working toward your task, gradually building into longer amounts. Some of you may have read a previous article of mine about writing a book one hundred words at a time. This is much the same principle. Do you remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? The plodding tortoise eventually won the race.
4. Solve the small problems before they become big problems. Do you have a problem with children occasionally interrupting your writing time? Solve this before it becomes a daily or even hourly interruption. Do you have a problem with finding even sixty seconds in your day for your writing? Experiment with getting up a minute earlier every day. That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, that getting up a minute earlier every day will enable you to write a book.
5. Reward yourself for each step you take. Did you write an outline? Reward yourself. Did you spend the amount of time you set for yourself on your writing for the day? Reward yourself again. (I don’t recommend rewarding yourself with chocolate on a frequent basis. It can be addictive, and the resulting pounds are difficult to get off!)
6. Recognize the small achievements, i.e. you wrote an outline or synopsis; you wrote the opening sentence; you completed the first scene; you completed the first chapter; you reached the halfway point. Notice how these small achievements are gradually becoming bigger and bigger with every day. You have momentum on your side as well as the feeling of satisfaction in meeting the small goals you’ve set yourself.
WRITING THE BOOK
Now that you understand the basic premises of kaizen, start applying them to the actual writing of your book.
Begin with asking small questions. “What if I did this? What if I did that? Small questions evolve into small thoughts which evolve into small actions. Small steps, if done in a steady but confident manner, can result in a huge reward.
What questions can you ask yourself in starting a book?
Don’t start with “What kind of character will appeal to my readers?” That’s far too sweeping and broad and nebulous. You don’t want sweeping and broad and nebulous. You want small and concise and manageable. What about asking yourself “What can my character do on the first page that will hook my readers?” Or “What trait does my character most dislike about herself?” Or “What word most accurately defines my character?” Or “What person in my character’s life had the most effect on him or her?” Find the right small questions to ask your character to set you on the right track
Let’s tackle small thoughts. Can your character have a recurring problem with a negative self-image that, try as might, he can’t shake? What thought might be running through his mind? “I’m a loser who will never amount to anything.” This may lead you to ask questions of your character about his background. (Questions lead to thoughts and thoughts lead to more questions.) What makes you think you’re a loser? Who told you that? Was it your parents? An older sibling? Classmates? Friends who really weren’t friends at all? A mean-spirited teacher who didn’t recognize the gifts inside you?
What is at stake that his negative thoughts will keep him from achieving? (Note: you are thinking in small, bite-sized chunks, but your character should be dreaming big. Determining what is “big” to your character is distinctive to him: his age, his background, his family constellation, his dreams. Obviously what is big to a three-year-old will not be big to a sixteen-year-old.)
What if he wants to earn a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious college and his negative self-image prevents him from asking his teacher for a letter of recommendation? What if he doesn’t have the confidence to take the required test to apply for the scholarship? What if he is intimidated by his high-achieving father and is too afraid to ask him to sign the permission slip to take the test? Are you beginning to see how the small questions you asked yourself at the beginning of the process have lead to small thoughts which result in more questions and more thoughts.
Where do these thoughts lead?
To action! Small actions, that is.
What small action can your protagonist take that will push her forward on her journey? Can she decide that she wants to try out for the cheerleading team? Maybe her small step in that process is to take a gymnastics class. Maybe it’s to ask a friend to coach her in the cheerleading moves? Can she decide that she wants to change her boring look for a more up-to-date one? Maybe her small step is to buy a new lip gloss. Maybe it’s to get her hair cut. Maybe it’s to seek out her aunt who always looks fabulous.
Keep using the technique of asking small questions of your character, leading to small thoughts, and resulting in small actions. Don’t expect more of your character than you expect of yourself. Let her take the baby steps in achieving her goal just as your are taking baby steps in achieving yours of writing a book.
When I first learned of kaizen, I was immediately intrigued. As a person resistant to large changes, I knew I could make small changes to become more productive, more creative in my writing. (I’ve also started applying it in other areas of my life.)
Knowing that I don’t have to write 5,000 words in a day (yes, I know a writer who does that) freed me into knowing I could write 500 words in a day.
Employing kaizen techniques won’t change you or your writing overnight, but it can change your life—one step at a time.