How do you eat an elephant? Of course the answer is one bite at a time. But now answer a slightly different question . . . What would your organization’s strategy be for eating an elephant? Still many, small bites? Likely not. Most organizations are hungry and impatient. They need sustenance and they need it now. The elephant is one mammoth morsel , and eating it demands an overly-complicated, ultra-expensive, ultra-high-speed, custom elephant-eating doohickey contracted out to the lowest-bidder. It’s the anti-kaizen approach.
What is Kaizen
If you’re part of the typical organization, chances are that you have a distorted understanding of the true meaning of kaizen. Many view kaizen as a rigorous, multi-day, workshop where a dysfunctional cross-functional team is locked in a room until the sticky notes have all been stuck and the implementation plan looks impressive enough to sell to the executive team, only to be forgotten about once every one returns to their day job. That is not kaizen; that is a kaizen event. There is a difference, and it’s not trivial.
Kaizen is a philosophy. Kaizen is a mindset. Kaizen is a way of thinking. Kaizen engages everybody, not the chosen few picked to attend an event. Kaizen addresses the problems we face every day, not just the few that get the attention of the most senior levels of management. Whereas the traditional improvement strategies dictate a focus on only the biggest problems plaguing an organization, the foundation of the kaizen approach is one of continuous improvement achieved through many, small, rapid cycles of learning.
Given that time, money and resources are always in short supply, the ruthless prioritization of just the biggest problems seems only logical. However, a deeper analysis of the approach reveals it to be the underlying cause of many systemic issues that plague traditional organizations. I call it Big Problem Syndrome and it has three primary symptoms.
Big problems syndrome consumes tremendous quantities of time and resources. Because of the massive time commitment required, there must be a separation between those working towards the solutions to the big problems, and those that do the work.
The people who run the process are seldomly engaged in the problem solving efforts. Their mental focus is limited to the tasks needed to do the work, rather than being leveraged as an asset for improving how the work is performed. Because idle minds are not developing minds, the human capacity to learn and improve is almost completely wasted in these individuals. Rather than being developed to add value, the front line staff is reduced to just another cost on the balance sheet to be reduced or eliminated.
Those engaged in solving of the big problems do not fare much better. We achieve personal development through many, many cycles of practice and feedback that drives us to a new way of thinking. By focusing only on a few, large problems, the opportunities to receive the feedback required to complete the cycles of learning are severely limited. Even worse, long timelines delay the receipt of any feedback that is generated for weeks, months or even years. As such, the few opportunities for learning that do exist are absent of the context necessary to change the learner’s established patterns of thinking.
The result, in both cases, is a failure to develop our greatest asset.
Poor Process Knowledge
Organizations are defined by the processes that they perform. Therefore, the level of knowledge and understanding we have of our processes governs our ability, for example, to adapt to changes in the environment, to better meet the needs of our customers, to improve our operational performance, or to take advantage of new opportunities.
Our process knowledge changes in two general ways: 1.) from the experience gained over time from operating and maintaining the current process, and 2.) from observing the effects of changes to the process. While knowledge is universally gained through experience, not all process changes add to our understanding.
In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman establishes the following about the human condition:
A general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.
Large problems yield similarly large and complex solutions. Rather than improving from the current state of our processes, our tendency is to create an entirely new process state to address the big problems. In doing so, not only do we lose much of the knowledge that existed in the past state, but we are unable to learn from the conversion to the new current state process.
When multiple variables change in a short period of time, it becomes difficult, if not impossible to isolate the effect of individual changes. Thus, even if the results after the changes show an improvement over the past state, we have lost the opportunity to understand what has driven the improvement. Consequently, we know less about our processes after the changes than we did before, which puts us at a significant disadvantage when facing future problems that may arise, or when trying to drive further improvements to the process.
Conversely, the kaizen approach allows us to improve one step at a time from a single current state. Our view of the world does not change, it is only refined from our progress, and thus there is no loss of knowledge along the way. On the contrary, because small changes isolate the effects of individual variables in our processes, the changes create a deeper understanding the more that we improve.
In visual terms, the blue line below represents the kaizen approach to knowledge generation; the red line represents big problem syndrome.
The graph illustrates how Big Problem Syndrome destroys process knowledge and inhibits learning, making it difficult for organizations to adapt and grow.
A Culture of Fear
One of the biggest advantages of the kaizen approach to improvement is the lack of risk involved. The approach allows us to progress toward sizable goals by taking many, small steps very quickly. And although failure is an inevitable consequence of progress; when we fail while taking a small step, the impact to the organization is just that, small. Moreover, because of the experimental nature of the improvement cycles and the generally short timelines, failure occurs quickly, allowing us to course correct on the path to our ultimate goals.
Big problems, however, inherently carry more risk and amplify the impact of failure. Armies of resources need to be committed, massive amounts of money have to be spent, and eons of time will be inevitably be consumed. Big Problem Syndrome forces organizations to go “all in”, and as a consequence, failures can be catastrophic. The most significant penalty, however, is not one that affects the balance sheet; it is the culture of the organization that is most severely impacted.
How do typical organizations react to major failures? The finger gets pointed, strict policies are implemented, and people are cast away, all to ensure that history never again repeats itself. Failure must no longer be tolerated. Not only do these actions accomplish little in the way of improving future organizational performance, they create a culture where people fear failure.
There is little to be learned from success, and much to be learned from failure. We expect success, and when things go as expected, it only confirms what we already knew. However, when things do not go as expected, we are presented with an opportunity to learn something new. Risk is a component of any worthwhile goal, however, when we fear the failure of not achieving our goals, our natural response is to seek the comfort of the status quo. Not only does learning come to a standstill, but creativity suffers, innovators quit innovating, and we simply stop trying to do anything different than what we’ve always done.
Overcoming Big Problem Syndrome
If Big Problem Syndrome is a disease, then kaizen is the cure. Recall that kaizen is a state of mind and therefore, to overcome Big Problem Syndrome, we must change the way we think about improvement. Here are three ways in which we can shift our thinking to embrace the kaizen approach:
- Believe in the power of many, small improvements. Big problems do not necessarily yield big results. By solving many, small problems quickly, organizations can approach equally large goals one step at a time, rather than in a single, blind leap. The kaizen approach leverages the knowledge that we have gained from taking all of the previous steps to identify the step that must be taken next. In doing so, the level of improvement that we achieve is compounding, accelerating the speed at which the goals of the organization are reached. To start small, we must simply cast an inquisitive eye on the tasks we perform every day. We must look for the obstacles we jump over, the workarounds we create and the wastes we ignore and start eliminating them one-by-one.
- See failure as an opportunity. Failure is a byproduct of progress. Small problems, however, result in small failures. When failures are small, they are much easier to treat as opportunities for learning and development. When small failures do occur, resist the urge to name, blame and shame. Instead, celebrate the effort and reflect on how we would think differently when approaching the same problem in the future.
- Involve everybody, every day. Kaizen is not just about involving select individuals in intermittent events outside of their “day job”. Kaizen is about engaging everybody, every day as part of the way that we work. The best way to start is with yourself. Commit to eliminating waste in the work that you do and carve out the time as needed. Support others in doing the same. Celebrate early successes – and failures – and refine the underlying organizational practices to create an environment where improvement can flourish.
Changing our thinking is never easy, but it is necessary to Overcome Big Problem Syndrome. Consider the penalty of not changing: underdeveloped and underutilized people; lack of understanding, an inability to learn, and failure to adapt to a changing world; and poor organizational culture where we fear failure and cling to the status quo. Maybe kaizen is difficult, but simply look around. It’s better than the alternative. Unless, of course, you’re an elephant.