8403 Colesville Rd., Suite 1100
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Kaizen: One Small Step

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell
red arrow, change


There is a concept in Japan called kaizen, which means “continual improvement.” It is the philosophy that large-scale change can happen via small-scale, incremental actions. Let’s look at this concept further and how it can apply to conflict resolution.

Change does not have to be massive or occur all at once. Transformation can happen in slow and incremental ways and be just as effective as rapid change, even if it does take a little longer. Change often puts us into distress with ourselves and with other people and is a frequent contributor to conflict. Whether we are trying to make an internal change, such as overcoming a fear or improving self-care habits, or trying to make an external change, such as with relationships, workplace decisions, or a physical move, change creates a disruption to the routine which requires us to adapt.

Kaizen Philosophy
Originally developed for the Japanese business world, kaizen has been integrated into multiple other industries, including psychotherapy, banking, government, healthcare, and more. The basic principles of kaizen are not necessarily new, but by applying the approach to the workplace and conflict resolution, a new way of approaching growth and change in these industries has been presented. In the U.S., we might use the phrase “taking baby steps” to describe the basic principle of kaizen.

Many of us make New Year’s resolutions, and they tend to be large, broad goals such as “I will manage my finances better this year” or “I will lose ten pounds.” One reason so many of these resolutions fail is that they’re too broad. While admirable, these lofty goals often don’t come with action steps or a defined plan of any kind to help us reach the desired result. Unrealistic goals often do nothing more than increase our stress levels and are uninspiring. Thus, we fail.

This is where the kaizen approach can become invaluable. You may start with a large, broad end-goal, but set smaller goals along the way. By starting small, you will eventually reach that larger goal. Brett and Kate McKay wrote in their book, The Art of Manliness: “Each day, just focus on getting 1% better in whatever it is you’re trying to improve. That’s it. Just 1%. It might not seem like much, but those 1% improvements start compounding on each other.”

Kaizen works because not only are the improvements attainable, easy, and non-threatening, but they stick. In order to make lasting changes in our lives, the improvements we’ve made have to be maintained. If we made an improvement for only a week or a month, we would never reach real change. This is why those resolutions we make every January fail – the changes we’ve decided to make are unrealistic, and only last for about a month or two before we give them up.

Conflict Resolution
Kaizen is typically utilized by those who want to create change in their personal lives, as opposed to being used for conflict resolution. Since conflict often creates a need for change, the Kaizen approach could be a valid and useful strategy for resolving disputes. As Robert Maurer wrote in his book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life:

By asking small, gentle questions, we keep the fight-or-fight response in the “off” position. Kaizen questions such as “What’s the smallest step I can take to be more efficient?” allow us to bypass our fears. They allow the brain to focus on problem-solving and, eventually, action. Ask a question often enough, and you’ll find your brain storing the questions, turning them over, and eventually generating some interesting and useful responses.

In attempting to resolve a conflict, the mediator or neutral third-party could utilize this concept to ease one or both parties into a more accepting mindset. With “small, gentle questions”, we can ease into the causes of the conflict and potential resolutions without triggering a reactive response. Kaizen could be used to help us think through the options and acknowledge difficult situations.

Entrepreneur Brian Johnson wrote in his Philosopher’s Notes article that integrating kaizen can “melt resistance” toward a larger goal or action. By taking a small step first, it’s easier to take a larger step. Even in conflict resolution, this is an important consideration. It can be easier to help someone resolve a difficult dispute by first helping them acknowledge or resolve something smaller and less threatening.

Kaizen in Action in Conflict Resolution
I used the Kaizen approach when facilitating a team building meeting with a group of administrative professionals in a high-volume government health clinic. They called themselves the “firepit” team because of the intense high volume, high stress environment in which they worked. At the first meeting, the tension in the room was palpable. I asked them to identify the barriers to teamwork. Lack of communication, respect, and initiative were among the complaints. We put together a draft charter of how they were going to treat each other in the future but no one was willing to sign it. So I used the Kaizen approach and asked them to each identify ONE SMALL THING they could commit to. I returned to facilitate another meeting one month later and it was a different team. They communicate directly and respectfully. One person stated: “I caught myself with my bad reactions”. This is the first time I’ve used this technique, but it clearly made a difference.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. An expert in dispute resolution and mediation, Ms. Kandell is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She has been a leader in the Montgomery County Bar Association and the Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution. She provides mediation services, group facilitation, neutral evaluation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

Leave a Reply