Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Kaizen: "Relentless", Rather than "Continuous"

"Kaizen" is usually translated from Japanese to English as "Continuous Improvement". It loses its power in the translation.

"Continuous" is perfectly reasonable and correct, but it doesn't really convey Kaizen as the underpinnings of a way doing work. Kaizen is certainly continuous, but it's continuous as a side effect. More importantly than being continuous, Kaizen is relentless.

"Continuous Improvement" can become a flaccid thing - yet another empty corporate mission. At its worst, it reinforces workers' cynicism about cultural initiatives that don't really make work or outcomes any better. "Continuous Improvement" is passive. It's even apologetic and deferential. "Relentless Improvement" is active. It's even fair to say that Kaizen is aggressive.

Often, the real problems robbing an organization of its productivity are the smaller, pervasive problems that are finely-woven into the fabric of the way that work is done and conceptualized. When you solve problems that are inherent in the DNA of the work (and consequently, the organization), you'll likely free up more resources than you might have imagined. A Kaizen culture understands that microscopic, pervasive rot causes a kind of osteoporosis in the bones of the work that can't be seen without actively hunting it with fine optics, or until the bones start to break.

A Kaizen culture doesn't wait for problems to show up. It looks for problems. It's imbued with an awareness that negligible problems often aren't negligible at all - especially when they're pathological and pervasive. It knows that pathological and pervasive problems are often charged with the greatest potential for destruction. Kaizen is literally "looking for trouble", knowing that if it doesn't, trouble will find it. It challenges its belief that these negligible problems are not worth effort or attention. It grounds its exploration in meaningful but practicable, and accessible measurements, rather than in methodology mysticism. In progressively learning what measurements are interesting and practical, it learns to ask better questions.

When a Kaizen culture doesn't see problems, it wonders first whether its vision needs improvement, and sets out to sharpen its eyes rather than rest on its laurels and dull its senses. The adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", is a fallacy. Waiting for problems to come to you means that you're dancing to their tune. The downward, entropic cycle of fire-fighting and decay isn't transformed into a greater capacity to keep moving forward without constantly losing ground.

In the end, "Continuous Improvement" is useful because it's a standard term. But when it's time to actually do Kaizen, "Relentless Improvement" sets more realistic expectations about how it achieves pervasive dominance over pervasive problems.

Ampersand GT

Working with software developers and organizations to help realize the potential of software product development through higher productivity, higher quality, and improved customer experience

Learn more about my work and how I can help you at ampgt.com