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"Where there is no standard, there can be no kaizen."

On defining standards so that they are lightweight, easier to hit, and draw us in rather than pushing us away.

Jeremiah Rogers
Jeremiah Rogers
3 min read
"Where there is no standard, there can be no kaizen."

Last week I woke up to several iMessage audio clips from a client about the trouble he's been having to stick to his self-imposed standards.

I love communicating with clients over audio clips in-between sessions. There's far more nuance in audio than in text messages or emails.

I could hear the frustration in the client's voice. Missing on things we want to do hurts. So I decided to write about standards and share this more broadly.

(I've already conveyed this privately to my client).

Standards are a fascinating tool for personal development, but only if approached with the right mindset.

First, when I say "standard," I mean a logical rule that is easy to understand and where following it moves your life in the direction you want to go.

Something like "I don't eat food after 8 pm" or "I don't talk negatively about people when they are not in the room" is a standard.

Follow the standard, and your life gets better. Miss the standard, and your life stays the same or gets worse over time.

One reason standards are so good is that they help avoid decision fatigue. There is less thinking needed to improve our lives with standards in place.

Another part of standards is that they almost always trade short-term benefits for long-term rewards.

We would never make a standard or boundary if the behavior were easy to do in the short term. Behaviors that are easy to do in the short term don't need to be rules.

So any good standard will have at least some friction as we implement it, and we typically miss our standards a few times before they stick.

How can we design standards that are easy to hit?

I like to think about how my standards feel.

Do the standards feel like a wall holding me in? If so, I re-imagine them as not a wall, but as another type of physical boundary that benefits me.

Some people like a visualization of standards as the rim of a flower pot holding in the soil, encouraging them to grow upwards. Other people like the visualization of a standard as a closed door keeping the chaos out.

What matters is finding a way to think of our standards that draws us in rather than pushing us away.

Once we have a metaphor in mind, we can see if our standards could be reshaped to fit it.

The goal is subtly tuning every standard so that we are excited about it rather than avoiding it. This may not require any changes to the standard's wording; it may just be a shift in how we think about it.

Having exact rules is natural for me as a former computer programmer and mathematician. So I like my standards to be precise.

Other people like their standards conceptualized in different ways. The key is to do what works for you.

How do we stop feeling bad when we miss our standards?*

This problem reminds me of a quote by one of my favorite thinkers, Ohno Taichi.

Ohno was the driving force behind Toyota becoming a successful and high-quality auto manufacturer.

The quote is:

"Where there is no standard, there can be no kaizen."

Kaizen is a spirit of continuous improvement. Without a standard, we can never improve.

Many people get such a negative feeling about their standards that they avoid even thinking of them or get upset when they fail.

A spirit like that is self-defeating and exhausting.

Ohno and Toyota popularized being joyful when you fail.

Whenever a worker at a Toyota factory discovers a defect, they pull the "andon" cord, the entire production line stops, and happy music plays across the factory.

Toyota found that this happy music encouraged people to pull the andon cord more frequently, which meant that defects were more likely to be flagged, which helped Toyota produce higher-quality cars.

One way to feel better about "misses" is to treat them as a learning opportunity like Toyota.

When a miss happens, I try to think of it as exciting and analyze it to figure out what I can learn.

For example, over many years, I found that the standard of going to bed at a fixed time didn't work well for me. I would toss and turn for hours in bed and get frustrated.

Over many years of observing my failures and iteratively improving, it became clear that falling asleep at a "desired" didn't work for me, but waking up at the desired time did.

Today when I want to normalize my sleep, I set an alarm clock, avoid caffeine, and let my body fall asleep naturally when it's ready.

My adherence to this standard is not perfect – I still have a tough time avoiding caffeine – but I want changes over decades, not days, and I am glad to experiment until I find something that works.

I hope you are well and talk soon,