Kaizen (Or: How You Can Constantly Be Getting Better At Everything)

Written by George Spasov // Also shared on Startups.co.

Have you seen a true craftsman at work? You can almost mistake their work for magic. Rest assured, they haven’t achieved this level of perfection overnight. Just like the water grinds the stone they have ground their craft until it started looking like that. Today, I present to you with the tool to make your team’s productivity and efficiency similarly magical. I give to you the Japanese productivity philosophy Kaizen.

WHAT IS KAIZEN?

Kaizen was originally introduced to the West by Masaaki Imai in his book “Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success in 1986.” Probably the most famous mention of this concept is in the bestseller “The Toyota Way” By Jeffrey Liker.

In its nature:

Kaizen is the philosophy and practice of always striving to improve.

The translation of Kaizen from Japanese is “Change for the better”. It means continuous improvement in everything from everyone. But let’s stop the abstract connection here and translate it into modern terms and language.

In our time of volatility and uncertainty, Kaizen means creating a culture where everyone actively seeks to improve every process. All the time. Even the smallest improvements pile up over time.

Think again about the craftsman at work. All the craftsmen use Kaizen(consciously or unconsciously) to constantly get incrementally better and better at what they do. The end result — Magic.

Who is to say that you and your team can’t achieve magic through Kaizen too?

HOW TO IMPLEMENT KAIZEN IN MY TEAM?

Kaizen has several guiding principles that you should implement in order to practice it optimally:

  • Good processes bring good results
  • Genchi Genbutsu — See it for yourself
  • You cannot improve something you don’t measure
  • Treat the disease not the symptom
  • Work as a team
  • Kaizen is not a position, it’s everyone’s job

GOOD PROCESSES BRING GOOD RESULTS

In Kaizen, every activity is documented as a process. Simply said it’s just the steps and states that the activity goes through. It does not need to be very comprehensive one — more like a guideline. Don’t forget to add some exceptions, too. These processes give you and the whole team a handy document to refer to.

That being said, these initially documented processes are just the fundament. Add to them a pinch of continuous improvement. Think about them and optimize them. Find and add quick wins and shortcuts. You will end up with better processes, thus bringing better results.

Make sure your task management system helps you and your team visualize the flow of activities and easily track problems and potential improvements in the process. Think about Kanban Boards — they are great at visualizing stuff.

Takeaways

  • Document your activities into processes and then continually update and improve these processes. Better processes bring better results.
  • Make sure your task management system helps gives you an easy visual overview of your flow.

GENCHI GENBUTSU — SEE IT FOR YOURSELF

This guiding principle states that you need to fully understand the activity you are trying to improve. However, in order to truly understand any process or activity, you need to go to the genba (“the real place”) — where work is done.

Genchi Genbutsu is a key principle in Kaizen as it gives you the ultimate approach to problem-solving and improvement. Trying to improve looking at the bigger picture is only as effective as not looking at it at all. You need to get an intimate understanding of how work is done in order to solve its problems and improve it.

Takeaways

  • Go to “the real place” — where work is done. See and experience the problems of this process for yourself.
  • The real place does not always mean a physical place. Genchi Genbutsu means go and make yourself your part of your team current process thus experiencing their pains.

YOU CANNOT IMPROVE SOMETHING YOU DON’T MEASURE

This principle is quite straightforward. In order for you to improve any activity, you need to be able to measure its performance. Not only you need to measure it, but you need to have a quantitive data. You cannot rely on gut feelings or feedback — you need numbers. Only then, you can truly tell if your improvements are working or not.

Takeaways

  • Come up with metrics to measure about each process.
  • If something is not measured it’s either not important or mismanaged.

TREAT THE DISEASE NOT THE SYMPTOM

In Kaizen, finding the root cause of any problem is as important as fixing the problem itself. Fixing the root cause means long-term, maintainable improvement instead of just “firefighting”.

There is a very handy tool to help you think about root causes — “The Five Whys”. Learn it here.

Briefly described, this tool suggests that when tackling any problem if you ask five times why you will surely find the root cause of the problem, not just the symptoms of the current situation.

Here is a handy picture from our guide about “5 whys” to help you visualize it:

Takeaways

  • Always search for the root cause instead of treating the symptoms.
  • Use “The Five Whys” root cause identification tool.
  • P.S. Here is our article on this cool tool

WORK AS A TEAM

This one is pretty self-explanatory. In order to be as effective as possible, being a group of individuals is not enough. You need to have a team that works together with a certain goal in mind.

And then comes Charles Duhigg, the author of “Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business”. According to him the greatest teams exhibit a trait known as psychological safety.

Psychological safety emerges when:

  • Team members can bring their full self to work — This means that at the workplace the team members are not afraid or ashamed to be who they are and act accordingly.
  • Everyone can speak confidently — This means that the teammates do not feel fear of being penalized by expressing their opinion on any matter
  • Listening occurs actively — This means that all the members of the team listen to each other with the goal to understand the speakers point instead of just responding to it.

Takeaways

KAIZEN IS NOT A POSITION, IT’S EVERYONE’S JOB

The last guiding principle is that Kaizen is not a position. It is not part of the manager job description. It’s the responsibility of the whole team and organization. It’s should be part of the culture and everyone should be trying to improve the processes of the company.

Try implementing team and company-wide meetings discussing the current processes. Think how they can be improved and optimized. You will be amazed what kind of gems are unearthed in such an events.

Takeaways

  • Continuous improvement is everyone’s job.
  • Implement team meetings discussing the current processes and their improvement.

NOW WHAT?

It’s time for you to start practicing Kaizen and make your team magical. Start by implementing the guiding principles one by one and see their magic.

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