Sharing and building Solution Focused practice in organisations

SF and Kaizen: Not all small steps are equal?

Last year I was lucky enough to be lead facilitator at the TED Fellows Collaboratorium event in New Orleans (link).  The event was to bring together the brilliant young TED Fellows group with coaches and mentors, working on real issues in quite large groups – something of a facilitational challenge. As part of my role I wrote a facilitators’ guide, stressing (as I usually do) the importance of small steps in building a bridge between a challenging situation and a workable way forwards. 


The main organiser of the event made a few changes to the guide, adding the word Kaizen (in brackets) after ‘small steps’, so it read ‘small steps (Kaizen)’.  This got me wondering… how are these two philosophies related?


You have very likely heard about Kaizen.  Usually referred to as ‘continuous improvement’, it has a long and noble history in manufacturing and elsewhere as a way of driving change and enhancement, often with small steps.  One website assesses that Toyota implements thousands of small changes a year in pursuit of higher quality and better customer service.  These changes can come from suggestion schemes, quality circles, TQM activities, customer surveys and anywhere which can help the company produce better value. 


In Solution Focused (SF) work, we also use the idea of small steps.  These typically come following a conversation around a very stuck situation, where those concerned step around questions about causes of the problem and whose fault it all is, and focus instead on building understanding about (a) a better future, where the problems have vanished, and (b) times in the past when things have worked (even a little).  The small steps then build on the solution-focused past (everything that’s working already) and move a little way towards a better future.  Whatever positive change is produced (and there usually is some) can be recycled into further input for progress.  I’ve just produced a Youtube video about this – well worth five minutes of your time if you don’t know about SF yet. 


It seems to me that there is at least one key difference here.  In Kaizen, the small steps all add up progress in a broadly known direction.  In SF, where things are probably stuck initially, the clarity about direction itself is a product of the work.  We might therefore say that in SF, the small steps are particularly key as they are in NEWLY COHERENT DIRECTION. 


When these steps (or other emerging steps) are taken in this new direction, the impact is much more mould-breaking – a confirmation that progress is not only possible but within reach.  Once signs of progress are visible, those concerned can be confident that they are somewhere on the right track and can use all kinds of methods (including Kaizen) to build on it.  Perhaps this is why so much SF work is ‘brief’ – once there is direction (which is shared) and momentum (movement in that direction), then the issue becomes one of continuing and building progress. 


As a ‘recovering’ physicist, I enjoy asking people what’s the bigger difference – a small step vs a large step, or no step at all vs a small step?  Mathematically, anyway, (and also in my experience), the second of these (replacing no step with a small step) is hugely bigger.  The stuckness, hopelessness and uncertainly are replaced with hope and energy – and some small steps.  Which is a very large step indeed. 

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Comment by Anton Stellamans on November 2, 2013 at 20:27

Thank you for this distinction between Kaizen and Solution Focus, Mark. It is very useful for us as we are being asked to introduce SF in a production environment where the project managers have been trained both in Root cause analysis and Kaizen. Your article helps me to highlight the advantages of SF.

Comment by Hans-Peter Korn on November 1, 2013 at 20:50

Very interesting that in the understanding of some people "small steps" are understood as "Kaizen". For me "small steps" are small steps. What they mean depends on the context. 

In SF "small steps" have a certain meaning - as you described it (I really like it) - as a liquefier of stuckness, hopelessness and uncertainly.

In Kaizen - as it was developed at TOYOTA - "small steps" are seen e.g. as a consequence in a situation where a production-line personnel stop the moving production line in case of an abnormality and, along with their supervisor, suggest an improvement to resolve the abnormality which may initiate a kaizen. This improvement is worked out as a cycle of Kaizen activity, as it is described here. Of course - you can see the outcome of each Kaizen circle as a "small step" (but I doubt,  that each outcome - an improvement in the production line - is a small step only. Often it have to be a bigger one considering all dependencies).

This Kaizen circles are similar (but not the same) as the PDCA (plan–do–check–act or plan–do–check–adjust)-circle or Deming c.... They also can be seen as small steps. But: For me they have nothing in common with SF, as they follow a very analytical and mechanistic pattern.

And there is Barry Boehm's Spiral Model. Each circle (= iteration) can be seen (and often is seen) as a "small step". The same with a "Sprint" in Scrum. Or one circle in the Rapid Application Development.      

All this also often is understood as a development based on small steps towards a "vison" of the product in a situation, where that vision is more or less fuzzy and the way of the development has a lot of uncertainties. Therefore it is wise to do it with small steps, each delivering a small additional increment of the product, based on short iterative circles. This gives you the flexibility and adaptivity you need. BUT: This is not SF. It is a well working method to develop products in complex situations.

AND: It is wise to be Solution Focused  if you feel completely stuck, hopeless and uncertain within a process consisting of small steps, each delivering a small additional increment of the product, based on short iterative circles.     


Comment by Mark McKergow on November 1, 2013 at 18:03

Hi Dave, thanks for taking the time to comment! 

Comment by Dave Holt on October 31, 2013 at 19:10

Really like the small step vs a large step metaphor 




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