Monday, April 28, 2008

Baby Steps

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step." Lao-Tzu

Let me tell you about an offbeat exercise we did in Woody Mosten's Divorce Mediation class. All 17 students were instructed to think of a recent conflict in their lives. Then we lined up at the front door inside his house, and one-by-one, we walked single-file down the sidewalk to the corner, thinking hard about what small incremental steps we could take to resolve that conflict.

Now here's the catch: We literally had to take small steps. One can only imagine what the neighbors thought, watching this dreamy snail-like procession of baby steppers -- some with deliberate heel-to-toe tightrope precision, others shuffling serenely. After we finally gathered, we uniformly acknowledged that, although we initially felt uncomfortable and impatient, we gradually synchronized our thought processes to our body movement, and by contemplating each step slowly and individually, our solution-seeking became more efficient and productive.

Try it yourself -- you'll be surprised.

As I later told Woody, this exercise reminded me of invaluable lessons I learned from my old friend and colleague Robert Maurer, a psychotherapist who travels the world conducting popular workshops around the principles of Kaizen. He's even written the book on the subject: "One Small Step Can Change Your Life: Using the Japanese Technique of Kaizen to Achieve Lasting Success."

"Oh, yes," Woody replied with a smile, indicating that he was quite familiar with the ancient Zen philosophy. Like my friend Bob Maurer, he too had learned about it from popular literature about workplace management in the 1980s, and consciously chose to adapt and embrace its power for personal and institutional evolution.

Kaizen is a Japanese term that literally means "good change." Pronounced ki-zen (to rhyme with "lies in"), it prescribes "continual, small, gradual improvement," rather than its thematic opposite--innovation--which connotes big, bold, sudden, seismic change. Innovation is emblematized by lightbulbs and "Eureka!"; Kaizen is baby steps, "one day at a time."

Kaizen was applied, ironically, by an American management consultant, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who used it to maximize the quality of manufacturing during World War II. After the war, Deming then introduced the concept to Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota. Kaizen, then, is credited for the blindsiding and dethroning of the American automobile industry during the 1980s by the Japanese, who trained their workers to focus on manageable, incremental improvements at a time when U.S. car manufacturers were thinking "bigger and better."

Kaizen has applications far beyond manufacturing. It's a powerful tool in creativity and personal change. For most people, innovation--making large steps to accomplish goals--is the only way to proceed. The idea that small, seemingly trivial steps can lead to the same end, and sometimes even faster, defies common sense, but it appears the tortoise and the hare fable can also be a model for enduring transformation.

As the director of behavioral sciences for the family practice residency program at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and a faculty member with the UCLA School of Medicine, Maurer embraced Kaizen early on as a valuable tool for patients to improve their health, relationships, and careers. Maurer's investigations have led him to explore how successful people sustain their excellence and enthusiasm in the face of adversity.

I wanted to know how Kaizen can specifically help mediators (who by definition are at the very nexus of adversity) -- not just in their day-to-day practice with clients, but also in propelling and bolstering their careers.

"Kaizen has two definitions," Maurer told me. "One is to take very small steps to achieve large goals; the other is to look at small details to learn large lessons . . ."

JERRY LAZAR: Let's start with goals. How should a mediator take the Kaizen path here?

ROBERT MAURER: The problem with big goals is that they send the person into fear, and fear diminishes creativity. Kaizen may sound simple and obvious, but it is usually forgotten by even the most seasoned negotiator. Under time pressure, which is part of all negotiations, the obvious need to start small -- building trust and building a process for problem solving -- can be quickly abandoned in the rush toward consensus. It takes faith, courage, and patience to assume the Tortoise approach to mediation is faster than the Hare approach.

JL: So make the intermediary goals smaller?

RM: Novelist Anne Lamott tells the story of her then 10-year-old brother who had a school report due on birds the following day. He had procrastinated for months. She writes: "He was at the kitchen table close to tears, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father put his arm around my brother's shoulder and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'" That's excellent advice for all of us.

JL: Take divorce mediation. The participants are overwhelmed by gargantuan changes in every aspect of their lives. That fear can translate to anger -- notably toward each other, because who else can they blame? So mediators need to hew especially close to the Kaizen path, breaking down each big decision -- like a comprehensive parenting plan -- into subsets of smaller, more easily digestable decisions. And take them slowly, one at a time.

RM: Getting the parties to acknowledge each other's small progress is also useful. By asking each party to state even ONE good point or ONE positive accomplishment of the other, they are better able to to keep the other person in perspective and not demonize them. They may need to be prodded to describe agreements they’ve made and kept over the years, since they are now focused in other areas.

JL: I agree that fear is a byproduct of most negotiations, especially divorce mediations -- fear of losing your money, your reputation, your house, your kids, your pride... Fear of the future...

RM: Kaizen was initially used by a business consultant to help Toyota build high-quality automobiles. Deming knew that fear is the enemy of creativity and wanted workers not to be afraid. There's an element of thinking of many businesses, that the way to motivate workers is through intimidation, and nothing can be further from truth. It's recently been reinforced and validated that people learn through small questions. Unlike a computer, the human brain can't reject a question, and if you ask the same question repeatedly, and if the question isn't big enough to scare you, then the brain will take it in and start popping out answers.

So at Toyota, they did not ask, "What are you going to do to make Toyota the greatest car company in the world?" Instead, they trained each worker to ask, "What small, trivial step can I take today that might improve the product or process?" On average, Japanese workers made 100 times more suggestions to their employers than the average American workers, who were conditioned to think in terms of big innovative changes.

JL: So the mediator has to direct his clients to ask these kinds of small questions. Not, "How am I going to divide all this community property?" Not, "What's wrong with her that she doesn't understand my 401K?" Not, "How come my neighbor got more spousal support than me?" or "What's wrong with my attorney?"

RM: The problem with those is that they're big enough to send the brain into fear--or anger, which is just a derivative of fear. So make your questions small: "Which parent is best able to take our son to baseball practice on Fridays?" And trust that the brain will start popping out answers. What you're trying to do in the creative process of mediation is not get in the brain's way. And lots of little answers lead to big answers.

If the mediation is grinding to a halt because the parties are overwhelmed by fear, Kaizen has the potential to conquer that underlying fear. Instead of saying, "How am I going to get this guy to agree to all her demands?," you tell yourself, "What one small detail can these two agree to?" As every mediator knows, sometimes one seemingly small thing will bring disputing parties one small step closer to resolution. We've all seen stalled negotiations go forward after a simple acknowledgement, or even a heartfelt "I'm sorry."

JL: What can a mediator’s clients learn from Kaizen?

RM: Kaizen is also applicable to the keeping of agreements. Such things as punctuality or returning phone calls in a timely manner --keeping even the "smallest" agreements -- are crucial, since what is "small" to one person, may not be to the other. How often have we heard this: "If I can't trust you to call me when you say you will, how can I trust you with our child or the finances?"

JL: How can Kaizen principles be used for successful career management?

RM: There are two common explanations for why professionals can get that first burst of success and then have trouble sustaining it. The most common one, in all walks of life, is that people presume that once you've succeeded that's all you need to do. They don't work each day to slowly, incrementally improve their craft and develop their artistry. But if you're not continually working at getting better at something, you're working at getting worse.

That's the first explanation of why people hit significant droughts that last for years, or a lifetime, after an initial success. The second reason is that some people have a problem with sabotaging success. At some level inside of them, they feel they don't deserve to succeed in life, and so they sabotage future efforts. They don't return phone calls, or they work on something and stop at the first sign that it's going to succeed. These are people who have what we call self-defeating personalities. They think, My god, how am I gonna top this? What am I gonna do that's bigger and better than this?

JL: Instead of that big success freeing them--I've crossed the finish line, I've proven I can mediate, I've proven I can be a commercial success -- instead they now figure, Nothing I do is good enough. In every field there is always someone doing better than you, so you can always be comparing yourself and be a disappointment to yourself because you're not more and better.

RM: Kaizen can free you, if you see this pattern, by asking, "What small things can I succeed at today?" It's almost like you're fooling the brain, like what happens in Alcoholics Anonymous. They don't declare that they want to stay sober for 20 years. What do they say? One day at a time. So you don't need to declare yourself a success forever; you just need to get through this minute, this hour, this day. This becomes your new definition of success. Am I making one phone call today to find new clients? Am I reading that new book about conflict resolution to see what new techniques I can learn today?

JL: There's a growing realization that mediation is more art than science. How can Kaizen help you find inspiration in your practice?

RM: Kaizen suggests that you're as likely to get your idea for your success from anywhere--every small moment is equal. You don't need to take only negotiation or dispute-resolution courses; you can take an art history course and be just as likely to get inspiration for your next mediation. Inspire means to breathe in.

When you look at the history of inspired people, you find that their ideas came from anywhere and everywhere. Most of the great psychological insights, most of the great understandings of human nature, didn't come from psychiatric literature. They came from Shakespeare; they came from Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky. These were the great sages of the world. If you see yourself as someone who's trying to understand human experience and resolve conflict, all of a sudden the world becomes your library.

You're not just reading trade journals, you're watching a Ralph's shopper cross a picket line and be confronted by a striking employee who he's jovially encountered every week at the cash register. Kaizen teaches us that no idea is intrinsically more valuable or interesting than another. Mediation is a creative process, and the best mediators are well-rounded versatile artists with a rich palette of resources.


At the end of the last day of Woody Mosten's exhausting and exhilirating 40-hour mediation training, he asked us to consider what "one thing" we would each do next Monday. He didn't ask what our game plan was, or to detail our goals and aspirations, or make a to-do list . That could overwhelm and paralyze us. Instead he wisely asked: What one small step could we take? And that's something every mediator should ask himself about his next strategy -- either in the heat of battle, or in pushing his career forward. It's something every disputant should ask himself in pursuing the path to peace.

What baby step will we implement?


H said...

Thank you for this great interview and article. I apply the step-by-step process to my personal and professional life and will explain the process with my clients.

The Modern Woman's Divorce Guide

Jerry Lazar said...

Thanks, Helene! By the way, I just poked around your Website, and it is a miracle and a wonder -- chockablock with helpful information and resources. I highly recommend it to all (and not just women!) ... Peace and prosperity to you and your clients!... JL