Kaizen and Radical Helpfulness

[This article was first published on the TechHumans blog on 2014–06–26.]

Context

I recently spent two days with other students in a Kanban class (see Wikipedia’s definition of kanban at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanban). An effective kanban system minimizes the degree to which any part of the process needs to wait for input from its predecessor (called blocking), and maximize task completion. Loosely associated with kanban is kaizen, which, in the western business world, signifies a process of continually improving operations based on feedback and experimentation from people at all levels of an organization.

Ice Cream

During the mid-afternoon break on the second day we were invited to go next door for free ice cream (!). I arrived to find a substantial line. (Backlog!) The process was quite inefficient. Each “customer” stepped up to the ice cream bar, took a scoop from a metal container filled with water, scooped his or her ice cream, and returned the scoop to the metal container. Making matters worse, the ice cream bar was located in a place that was ill-suited for this flow, so entering and exiting the scooping area made it take even more time.

Not My Job

It is common for us to assume rigid lines bounding our responsibilities, and focus our energies inside those lines. This is, after all, the basis on which our value is judged; no one ever got a raise or promotion by picking up someone else’s garbage. And while there is a legitimate weight for this, in its extreme it is selfish.

Fear of Embarrassment or Rejection

What if I make a suggestion and it turns out to be a silly one? Or what if the person responsible would be angry if I moved the table, saying that I should mind my own business?

Laziness

If I just wait my turn, I can avoid the effort of embarking on this mental journey to solve the problem, and avoid the social effort required to enlist the support or permission of others.

Low Self Image

I’m not good enough to figure out a solution to this problem, so I won’t bother trying.

It Didn’t Occur to Me

Most likely, it doesn’t even occur to me to try to solve the problem.

It Was Where It Needed to Be

Of course, there’s always the possibility that this alternative had already been considered and rejected for good reason. I’ve found that sometimes when I’m sure I know better, I don’t — and that’s another opportunity for growth, but outside the scope of this article.

The Toronto Hotel Fire Alarm

I attended a conference in Toronto a few years back, and a false fire alarm sent everyone out into the street. There were probably a hundred people waiting a pretty long time for the hotel to call us back in. Two parents and their children were standing there in their swimsuits, obviously quite cold. I found a hotel employee, pointed to the family, and said “those folks look pretty cold, is there anything we could do for them, maybe get them some towels?” A couple of minutes later they had towels around their shoulders and smiles of relief on their faces. Though I may be projecting, it occurred to me that they were happy not only to be warm, but from the nice feeling that we get when we receive (or give) help.

How the California Highway Patrol Saved My Life

It was late at night a few years ago, and I was driving from San Francisco to my friend’s place about an hour outside of the city. I was getting sleepy. Suddenly I heard a siren, and noticed flashing lights in my rear view mirror. I pulled over. The highway patrolmen told me I had been weaving, and asked if I had been drinking. I hadn’t. Since I had no recollection of weaving, or anything, before being pulled over I’m pretty sure I was asleep. If I hadn’t been stopped, I might have died that night.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

In the book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, the great physicist Richard Feynman relates (among other things) his experiences as a child working at a hotel run by his aunt on the beach. His playful uber-geeky brilliance is a fun read as he relates his incessant ill-fated attempts at process improvement at the hotel and the angry reactions of his elders. In his defense, it would be unfair to judge his inventions by the very first iterations of them, and he didn’t get the opportunity to refine them. You can read this online at pp. 25–30 of the book (go to http://books.google.com and search for “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman”).

Extending this Principle to the Broader Human Experience

The lack of initiative so often found damages productivity in the workplace, but if we extend it to the broader human experience, we can see that much suffering has occurred due to apathy and selfishness. Edmund Burke said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It is natural for us to think of ourselves and our families first, our wider groups and nations next, and “the rest of the world” last. We’re wired that way. But it would also be prudent, helpful, and good to acknowledge how much damage and suffering that self-centeredness has caused, and work to mitigate it.

Conclusion

Gerald Weinberg says in his book “The Second Law of Consulting” that “No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.” We want to be part of the solution, not the problem, right? So here are some questions we can all ask ourselves:

  • Do I actively seek opportunities to be helpful?
  • When someone makes a suggestion to me, do I give it serious consideration? Do I feel grateful for the suggestion? If not, why not? Do I communicate that gratitude to the other person?
  • If I have authority over others, how do I respond when they make suggestions that differ from my own ideas and opinions?
  • Do I feel happy or envious when a coworker is recognized for excellence?
  • If everyone behaved as I do, would my organization be a better or worse place? In what ways?
  • Do I monitor my thoughts and actions and notice when there is need for improvement? If so, do I make an effort to correct myself?
  • Do I ask myself what am I not thinking or doing that I should be (as described in the Toronto Hotel story)?