Thursday, June 23, 2016

Practical techniques of getting things done using “Shrinking” steps.

Everyone is talking about how taking small steps is better than planning gigantic
goals and failing completely. Okay, but how? What is to be done, in practice? 

Coaching with Practical Small Incremental Changes , taken from The Coaching Booster book.

“It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.” Proverb A lot has already been written about making big changes which will be most effective by taking small steps. Let’s talk a bit about the concept of shrinking things down (meaning breaking them into small steps).

For example, nowadays it’s commonly accepted that achieving big physical accomplishments starts with very small actions. Let’s say we want to do 100 pushups, it’s recommended to start with 2–4 a day and add only a few more each day. Accumulatively. till we reach our goal of being able to perform 100 pushups in one set. Same rules apply to getting things done and achieving other goals…accumulating small steps, thinking and acting towards the goal as a set of small actions instead of a one-off revolutionary act… We prefer to address change as a process, as something that happens over time.

What then is the value derived from small steps?

1. Small steps = Easy to start, easy to grasp, easy to understand. It looks achievable and is therefore worth the risk of trying.

2. “Small” builds momentum = quick wins. When we take a small action towards our goals, now that we have defined our actual starting point, succeeding in this small step makes it easier to take the next one. After all, we have already started, succeeded and are on our way, why not continue?

3. Fail small = Easy to fail. Even if we fail, it is probably easier to understand, easier to grasp, easier to correct and it’s a lot safer then failing completely. It’s just a small step that can be corrected or revised.

4. Fail small = Easy to correct

5. Fail small = Easy to change and restart all over (and fail again if needed).

6. Accumulating small actions into big ones = Achieving big results.

But how? What can be the practical, small steps that will keep us focused on the goal? In addition, in this rapidly changing reality, full of information and feedback, which we wish to change – how do we realize we need to change our goals or actions and react well to this constantly evolving. Should we just keep changing and hanging taking small steps one after another? environment? After all taking small steps will not be enough if we steer off track while doing so.

Here’s where PDCA and Kaizen enter the picture.

Plan, Do, Check, Act

These techniques allow us not only to define small steps, but also to take action, change, react to the feedback we receive, change again if needed and refine our goals if needed. It’s like constantly being able to adjust our sights.

One (of many) neat tools taken from the Lean world is called PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act). PDCA is a Kaizen approach. We discussed this Lean philosophy as one of the coaching booster principles – continuous improvement. True PDCA is all about the ability to respond to change, constantly improve, gain a sense of capability, change and grow while making forward progress. It is a practical way to respond to change.

How can we use it to our coachee’s benefit? Let’s look at children and the gaming world for minute.
Gaming is an excellent example of what PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) is all about.
Remeber Shirly’s kids who play lots of video games. Let’s elaborate a bit more about that example.
Her kids are now old enough to play video games and start being engaged in the gaming world. This has, of course, got her wondering about the benefits of playing those games, if there are even any benefits. Well, they have some benefits. One of them is related to our ability to fail, when you fail, or experience success, or need to get things done to win the game, you learn. Check out this blog post by Mike Langlois, Failing Better “There is another aspect of failing in video games that I think we need to pay attention to, and that is the role of autonomy. […] The reality is that mastering challenges and fun failure creates a feeling of optimism, which neurologically and emotionally improves our ability to learn in the future. If we think we are capable of solving a problem, we will keep at it. Therefore, we need to foster a sense of autonomy in learning. The minute we start talking about ‘my special needs child,’ we are taking away their autonomy. […]The less we stigmatize failure, the more we encourage autonomy and optimism. Autonomy and optimism make you a better learner, a better collaborator, and a better worker. Personally I think the world could use
a lot more of that.” Mike Langlois.

Looking at it from the Agile point of view, there is an additional point. These games allow the
kids to fail over and over again, forcing them to re-plan their steps and try again using small
focused steps.
The players gain more experience and try yet again. Failing again and again just means that you learn how to do it better next time. It also means that you retry again and again. And each time you re-start the level, you gain abilities, or power, or wealth. You start from a relatively easy stage and advance to harder and harder stages, journeying through a series of failures, successes and learning.
And you do it in small steps.

Thinking of gaming experience, we think it’s an excellent example of what a PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) attitude is all about. The ability to constantly improve, gain a sense of ability, change and grow while making forward progress.

Understanding PDCA

Now let’s leave the kids playing their video games, and learn a bit about PDCA, and how we can use it in coaching sessions.

The PDCA cycle is part of what we call Kaizen continues improvement tools: you’ll see it’s very much similar to the personal discovery process we just did (and no wonder, it’s all Lean): forming our goals, setting the path and building blocks and understanding our bumps and capabilities. Now, what is left to do is to act upon it.

PDCA and Kaizen may look like this:

• Set goals and create a short brief about the required relevant information.
• Understand where you are and where you want to be.
• Choose a small(!) item for improvement.
• Act upon improvements.
• Review and change as necessary.

• Review results again and see if any action should be retaken.

In practical terms it is called PDCA PDCA (plan–do–check–act or plan–do–check–adjust) “is
a four–step model for carrying out change. Just as a circle has no end, the PDCA cycle should be repeated again and again for continuous improvement.” ASQ It’s commonly used as a business management technique for control and continuous improvement of processes and products, sales and other areas.

** Baby steps in PDCA. Each step does not bear a huge or even large or medium change, it’s small, tiny changes taking place and crawling forward using this model.

Plan to do something)Do it)Check and see how it went, change whatever you think is necessary and) Act accordingly to the changes. Then do it again.

When we start using PDCA more and more, it becomes second nature to us. Just like a child playing a video game, failing and checking our steps is something that comes without thinking.

It’s a continuous improvement mindset. When done right, PDCA keeps us in a “capable” mode. It challenges us to solve problems in relatively small portions, allowing us to experience small failures and enjoy the success of change. “Success”, of course, is a great feeling – and we can leverage this sensation when we make small changes. We don’t need to wait for the big bang process to be completed.

PDCA, when done right, helps us experience controlled success and failures, and most
importantly, helps us feel capable, driven from our experience and the effort we put into ‘doing’. This fuels us to continue, to try to solve and change and grow. Of course, just as anything else that is unfamiliar, the theory looks very strict. We just need to experience it, adapt it to fit our needs and improve on it.

The right mindset for Kaizen and PDCA

So, what is the best way to get into a Kaizen continuous improvement frame of mind using PDCA? You can use the existing task board or create an individual PDCA cycle focused on a specific issue. Obviously as a coach you already possess communication tools that allow you to identify problems, options and directions .

1. First of all, don’t forget to have fun while changing. “Fun” usually comes last in our checklists. Not this time. Having fun helps us fail well and increases our ability to solve problems now and in the future.

2. When something is interesting it’s also easier to solve. PDCA is like a puzzle, so treat it as such. It should be interesting and related to what we want to do. Similarly to a puzzle, sometimes we need to try a few times before we figure it out. It is also important, as part of our Lean approach to focus on a valuable item.

3. Encourage Autonomy. In a video game, you start from the easy stuff. You gain experience by failing and retrying (Do-check), you learn from your mistakes and try again. Sometimes (most of the times!!!) you become better… even awesome in what you do. But the player manages to do it since he can use the autonomy of the game. This is a very important step in PDCA. Have the autonomy to change, learn and adapt. No change will happen if you aren’t allowed to think by yourself, fail, make mistakes and try again. So encourage your client to think for himself even if it means he’ll fail and get hurt … it’s okay.

4. Welcome failure as a step toward success. Don’t expect to succeed from step one. Encourage them to check things out and try again and again.

5. Deal with small steps, one thing at a time. There’s no need to plan, do, check and act over massive projects. It doesn’t need to be a long cycle. It can be a daily process of planning, doing, checking and acting. Divide big changes into smaller practical tasks. Choose one at a time and go with it.

6. Check –- means communicate, talk it over, discuss. Ask what went well and what we can do differently. You can use the daily meeting for that.

7. Ease yourself out of your comfort zone. Do one small thing each day to challenge yourself. Feel uncomfortable once a day, check it out, learn and adapt the next day.

8. Learning is a curve. We learn better from experience.

9. Appreciate the effort of doing. It is highly important, especially when you don’t succeed.

10. Visualize. As always, when you can see the change, it increases the probability of changing and doing. By the way, to visualize, I take a small enough task, using sticky notes, place them on the board, run them visually into the PDCA process, mark the change visually on the board, and repeat until the process is so innate people don’t even see it anymore.

11. Courage – Oh …, one more thing: what if we want to create a big step forward… leap over a big chasm… Then what? What if we wish to move to the big city, for example? 
Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George once said:

“The most dangerous thing in the world is to try to leap a chasm in two jumps: […] Anything can be achieved in small, deliberate steps. But there are times you need the courage to take a great leap”  

The answer to these questions is: With courage, and lots of it, but also with the ability to synthesize the smallest, most valuable big leap towards our goal and go for it. E.g.: talk to people who’ve been there, read about it, go for the weekend, get to know the surroundings, and more … . You don’t need to take a giant leap into a complete unknown, there is always some smaller step you can take and still achieve your goal fast.

References and further reading:

• ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems – Requirements. ISO.2008. pp. vi.
Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games

Chapter 1, Team-Based Problem Solving and Learning for Continuous Improvement


  1. Very interesting, thank you Shirley.
    I've found useful the difference between PDCA and PDSA, with "Study" and not "Check". Even if it is subtly it puts more focus on reflective learning explicitly.
    Find it at

  2. Thank you Shirley for this write up. I see this in a perspective of resolving our Technical Spikes.