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After World War II, the U.S. forces occupying Japan invited American managers to move to Japan and help rebuild the Japanese industry. A statistician named William Edwards Deming was one of those managers, and he worked under General Douglas MacArthur, consulting with the Japanese government on its census.

In 1950 he started working with Japanese manufacturers who wanted to reduce their costs and improve their product quality. Deming believed that improving quality would create lowered costs (because there would be fewer mistakes to correct) and greater productivity, which would then improve a company’s value.

Deming also believed that while you can improve processes, there’s no such thing as a “perfect” process. You should aim to continually improve the process of creating a product. This philosophy (along with other factors) helped create the huge economic growth of postwar Japan.

This philosophy of constant improvement became known as “kaizen,” which is the Japanese word for “improvement.” Toyota applied it to their factories, which contributed greatly to the company’s success. Amazingly, Toyota employees create more than 1,000,000 process improvement ideas every year – and 90% of those ideas are implemented.

Kaizen and Self-Improvement

Kaizen has moved from being solely a management philosophy into the area of personal development, and it has a lot to teach us about habits. It’s had a huge effect in my life and in the lives of many of our students at Asian Efficiency.

Instead of aiming for huge, drastic changes (lose 50 pounds! Save half my paycheck!), what if you aimed to improve by 1% every day? That might not sound like much at first, but since each daily 1% increase builds on the increases you’ve already gained, the growth intensifies fast.

What could this mean in your life? Here are a few examples, just from people I’ve talked with:

  • Eat one more vegetable per day (one tomato or one small salad)
  • Get up five minutes earlier every day until you’re waking up at the time you want to
  • Meditate for 30 seconds, adding five seconds every day
  • Write in your journal for three minutes, adding 30 seconds every day
  • Start reading 10 pages of a book a day, adding one page a day

The point here isn’t to get exactly 1%. It’s to find small changes you can make starting today. Small, continuous actions are the foundation of habits that stick.

To put that in a numerical perspective, compare the numbers below of what daily 1% improvements versus stagnation result into.


If you had a dollar and got 1% interest each day, at the end of the year you would have almost $38. On the other hand, if you lost 1%  interest each day you’d end up with just 3 cents at the end of the year.

Do you see how powerful small, incremental changes are? To go one step further, watch this video below. It’s one of my favorite videos on behavioral change and it has nothing to do about habits.

I hope that video demonstrates one powerful idea: small changes lead to big results. All you need is to make that small domino fall, that 1% change, to get to your big hairy goal.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Coming from a business that uses a version of the Toyota lean manufacturing I have some experience with kaizen. Empowering people to make small changes to improve quality and efficiency is key strategy of the company.
    Your points on taking that down to the personal level are great – people underestimate the power of making small frequent improvements. It’s a lot easier than going all in. Robin Sharma talks about this fairly often.

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