Kaizen Or Habits of the Has Been

“An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits.
We can never free ourselves from habits. The human being is a creature of habit.” – Steven Pressfield. “Turning Pro”


One spring Sunday in early 2002, I watched Tiger Woods absolutely dominate his field of competitors on Augusta National Golf Club, home to the annual golf tournament, the “Masters.” Following yet another victory, a reporter asked Tiger a question around how he maintains such a high level of performance and dominance. His answer was simple and rather nonchalant given what he had just accomplished, winning his third Masters since 1997. “I just try to improve 1% every day.” In terms of context, at the same time, I was developing a corporate change and innovation model for my doctoral dissertation and wrestling with why corporate change failures continued to top 70% and 90% failure rates for initiatives requiring cultural changes. I had chosen to be lazy and watch golf instead of working on my dissertation. I should chalk the discovery up to laziness; I had my eureka moment. I sat up in my recliner and said, “That’s it.” My personal Holy Grail had been discovered, and only a couple of my fellow nerds would have given a rip – so I did not share it with anyone. So, I decided to relish in my discovery, take a nap, and put my dissertation off for yet another day.

Evidently, Tiger’s strategy worked, at 2017, he has won 14 major championships, only second to Jack Nicklaus’s 18, 79 PGA Tour events, only second to Sam Snead’s 82 wins. Despite his recent decline, some sports writers claim he is the greatest golfer that has ever lived. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Little strokes fell great oaks.” While I highly suspect he was not referring to golf, Ben was precisely correct. Little things done every day eventually culminates into radical advancement.

The origins of incremental improvements, albeit the law of nature and life, did not find its prominence until the Japanese integrated the idea into their philosophy of Kaizen. The Kaizen philosophy, roughly translated as “change for the better” or “continuous improvement” was introduced by and large by American business management theorists  in the rebuilding of Japan’s business infrastructures decimated in the Second World War.

Kaizen found prominence in Toyota and lost notoriety outside of Japan until Toyota began dominating the auto industry and drove American theorists to begin to reassess this old philosophy when the American ideology of radical improvement began to crumble. In short, the philosophy of Kaizen hinges upon small, incremental, never-ending improvement of anything. It is a philosophy of mastery that never ends as perfection cannot be achieved. George Leonard, a fifth-degree black belt in Aikido, summed up the spirit of Kaizen in his 1992 book, “Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment” with, “We fail to realize that mastery is not about perfection. It is about a process, a journey. The master is the one who stays on the path day after day, year after year. The master is the one who is willing to try, and fail, and try again, for as long as he or she lives.” Leonard understood the notion of Kaizen exceptionally well as mastering Aikido takes decades of consistent training and development.

The key to mastery is very small improvements each and every day that will begin take form gradually, and over time, gradual improvements begin to compound on one another, and you eventually get radical change without the resistance normally associated with significant changes or new endeavors.

In its simplest form, habits, done daily incorporates the genius of Kaizen into tangible, practical application. As Steven Pressfield so insightfully forwarded, “Amateurs have amateur habits. Professionals have professional habits.” As with all things, the choice is yours. So choose wisely…your ultimate outcome and impact will hinge upon it.

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