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How's your Kaizen?

Sunday, 5 July 2020

I think most of us are familiar with the concept of Kaizen, or at least we think we are. We usually take it to mean a Japanese term for continuous improvement, but it is any improvement or literally “change for better” Many companies and organisations have some kind of improvement process or system - it’s just not always a formal one. Just because there isn’t a senior management sponsored programme to find ways to do what you do, but better, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Teams with good leadership - those with leadership that encourages experimentation and accepts failure as part of the road to success - will be doing this. Even some individuals will be looking for ways to improve their workflows. If these things aren’t being done then there’s a risk your organisation is standing still, not evolving and will sooner or later become obsolete. That’s the biggest risk. But, there is also risk with unmanaged Kaizen. With teams working on improvements in isolation things will be done ad hoc and at random. Instead of a nicely connected and smooth running organisation you can end up with a six year-olds version of Jackson Pollock. Which while it is probably prized by their parents, makes no sense to the average person (and at the risk of annoying some artists, the same could be said for much of Pollock’s work) All joking and art critiques aside, if individuals and small teams are all working to improve with work processes without some kind of coordination there is a good chance that things will actually get worse, not better. Why? They’ll fix all the issues within their team and more than likely not fail to consider the connections with other teams, or if you’re really unlucky impose new ways of working on those teams that only suit them. All of this increases friction and resentment leading to a more siloed company - which is not desirable. The goal of any process improvement should be to first reduce the complexity of operations within a team and then to hide as much of the complexity that remains as possible from their stakeholders. If your team has seven workflows and eight tools maybe you reduce that to five different workflows in three different tools. It’s still a bit complex, but that complexity isn’t your stakeholders problem. They need to be able to request everything in one system. Integrations and automation should take care of getting that request to the right tool and workflow. A team might be very good at reducing their internal complexity, but experience shows that they rarely engage with stakeholders to hide that from others. Equally the lack of cooperation can result in the team making their lives easier, but the lives of other teams harder. You have to find a balance between everything being as close to perfect for you as possible while not making things worse for everyone else. The difficulty with that is it can be hard to see things from the perspective of someone else. Having an external resource who can help coordinate changes across an organisation avoids these pit-falls and allows you to get the most out of your kaizen.

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