Kaizen

  • leadership

Kaizen - 改善 - Japanese
Improvement, or, literally, “good change”

When I began leading a team for the first time, I had the chance to choose the name for my team. Most of the teams in our organization were named after movies and the like and so I picked some random movie to name our team. Our agile coach, Mark, teased me a bit about the lack of meaning so I started to think a bit more deeply about what we should name it. I thought if it was to be meaningful, it should communicate something of the culture, purpose and way of working our team should aspire to. I chose to name our team, Kaizen. Even now, the timeless ideas packed into the name still resonate with me.

Kaizen is a Japanese word literally meaning “good change”. After WWII a number of US business consultants in Japan helped develop lean manufacturing, where the focus is on eliminating waste. As a part of lean manufacturing, kaizen came to refer not simply to an improvement, but the practice of continuously improving manufacturing processes. Kaizen is an important component of Toyota’s approach and is a part of The Toyota Way. Since then, kaizen and lean manufacturing have been translated into other applications in many industries.

Kaizen is the practice of empowering everyone within an organization, from the CEO to folks on the manufacturing floor, to make changes that help improve the efficiency and quality of the product. Anyone can make suggestions. Depending on your organization, how those suggestions are collected or triaged might vary. In a bureaucratic organization there might be a board that reviews the suggestions and puts them into action. In other situations it may be more organic.

Keep in mind, kaizen might be surprisingly simple. For example, “Let’s move this toolbox next to the person who needs it so we can cut down 3 min, 20 times a day”. Such a change might seem insignificant, but it alone yields a savings of ~1 hour in time every day. The real magic is in the continuous part. As you keep making changes and improvements, these little things add up to create an efficient system that is much better than any that a designer could create on their own.

The marginal savings add up significantly long term, but there’s also a synergy created when individuals are empowered to affect change in their world. This leads to a greater sense of autonomy and motivation (see Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us), more engagement in the work, better results and, likely, more ideas for improving the process.

Perhaps what is even more profound is that kaizen starts to create a culture that views the process itself as a product and is always actively improving it. At its best, kaizen can lead to a self-leveling type of culture within an organization. If you want an organization that is resilient to change and can adapt effectively these principles are essential.

As a software engineer and leader I am interested in the application of these techniques and approaches to software engineering. Below I explore some ways that I have applied kaizen within an engineering team.

Ask for ideas to improve

Actively and consistently encourage team members to propose ideas and give them space and time to do so. This should be across the board: in 1 on 1’s, in team meetings, in private messages, anywhere. Some teams have a regular ‘engineering meeting’ or ‘design meeting’ where any member can propose a topic; these meetings are perfect for fostering the sort of space needed to explore ideas.

Leave egos at the door

Don’t shoot down ideas even if you may think it’s not a good idea at first. You must accept that you no longer will be the one with all the ideas, but as a result the team will have better ideas. Allow the team to experiment and explore ideas.

Data-driven decision-making

When it comes time to decide whether to keep a change or not, use data to drive your decisions. Take metrics that are core to your team’s success and make them visible for the team. Use these metrics to make decisions as much possible. Making decisions based on data is a huge win for helping egos stay out of the way.

Praise innovation

Praise innovation and encourage with verbal recognition (and if appropriate and possible, monetary reward).

Retrospect

Retrospectives are gold for kaizen. Steer retrospectives to focus on the process of software development within your team. Celebrate improvements; identify pain points and make real steps to address them.

Don’t lose ideas

Always capture ideas, don’t just let them linger in the air in a meeting or disappear into an abyss. This helps you actually have the ideas when you need them, but has a nice side-effect of communicating to people that what they’re suggesting is valuable to the team.

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Through my experience with Team Kaizen, I found that kaizen is a key to creating a generative culture and helps establish an environment that tends towards success.

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