Jens R. Woinowski has been in the IT business for more than 20 years and is currently quality and risk manager at a major IT company. While studying and applying lean principles as part of his job, Woinowski discovered that lean management principles were as relevant in personal life as in business. In his blog Lean Self he shares insights of this discovery to the public.
One core principle of Lean is continuous improvement. While in theory the idea is simple and tools like A3s support it, the reality is much more complicated. As long as non-trivial processes are involved, the risk of slow or failed improvement is high. Agile Kaizen, which is suggested in this post, may be the answer to speed up and raise the chances of sustainable change.
If you have seen enough continuous improvement activities in real life, you may have seen this anti-pattern:
- A problem or improvement potential has been identified.
- Thorough root cause analysis may or may not have been done.
- A detailed improvement plan with key performance indicators, activities and everything else is drafted – with an A3 if a company officially wants to be Lean.
- The start of the improvement endeavor is communicated with a lot of enthusiasm.
- Nothing really happens and the organization falls back into the status quo.
- Months later, nobody really recalls what the improvement plan was about.
One reason for this is that the true nature of continuous improvement has not been understood. At a deeper level, it may even be that Lean thinking is not fully embraced.
As it is often the case, a look into the gems of Lean books is useful. In “Workplace Management”, Taiichi Ohno writes:
If my memory is correct, we were taught that it is a bad thing to give orders in the morning and then change them in the afternoon, but I think that as long as “the wise mend their ways” and “the wise man should not hesitate to correct himself,” then we must understand this to mean that we should, in fact, revise the morning’s orders in the afternoon.”
Applying this advice means that you need very short improvement cycles. Thinking in terms of Deming’s “Plan/Do/Check/Act (or Adjust)” may help, but only if you really act in terms of continuous improvement (kaizen). Otherwise the best case result will be leapfrog improvement or reform (kaikaku) while the worst case will be the anti-pattern sketched above.
A solution to this can be called “Agile Kaizen.” I’m not the first to suggest this term, but I hope to add a new perspective by merging the Deming Cycle with the Scrum approach, known from software development.
The following four elements are essential to implement Agile Kaizen:
- Problem understanding and improvement planning on the shop floor, by the people working in the process that needs improvement.
- A management which takes its responsibility as driving force and supporter of improvement seriously.
- Changes that can be implemented and tested quickly. These changes may be radical nevertheless, if they find the right lever against root causes.
- Using the Lean Startup adage “Fail fast, fail cheap, fail often” as building part of continuous improvement.
You do not need to know the full Scrum methodology in order to implement Agile Kaizen, although it may help. Five core concepts are used:
Concept 1: Strong Change Owners
The analog to the “Product Owner” of agile software development is the “Change Owner.” The change owner is a stakeholder, usually a manager, with the will to support the improvement process and the authority to make critical decisions that cannot be done within the core improvement team.
Concept 2: Agile Kaizen Board
Work is visually managed with a Scrum board, which is very similar to the Kanban approach. Each task/action takes one card. The board consists of columns that show the progress of work. Cards move from left to right depending on the progress. For the Agile Kaizen board you use the columns “Backlog”, “Planned”, “Do (=WIP/Work in Progress)”, “Check”, “Adjust”. When a card leaves “Adjust” it can be dropped from the board or move to “Backlog” or “Planned” again. Adding an “Impediments” or “Problems” horizontal swim lane may be good if tasks get stuck often. Tasks in this lane need to be resolved quickly.
Concept 3: Backlog Planning
Result of the improvement planning is not only an A3, but also a list of concrete tasks that need to be performed during the improvement cycle. After the initial planning, which should be performed in a “rapid improvement workshop”, these tasks are put to the “Backlog” column after the planning session. All tasks need be so small that one team member can perform them alone and within a short duration.
Concept 4: Weekly or Bi-Weekly Sprints
A sprint is the intermediate level of improvement planning. Sprints should be as short as possible for Agile Kaizen, so a weekly cycle is preferred.
At the beginning of each sprint, a sprint planning session of at most one hour is held. Each team member pulls those cards from the “Backlog” column into the “Planned” he or she expects to finish himself or herself within the sprint. The Lean principle “Limit your WIP” should be respected. That means anything above two or three cards per team member should be avoided. The change owner needs to be present during the sprint planning session.
During the sprint, every team member works on his tasks. The goal is to pull all tasks through the board within the sprint to the “Adjust” column.
At the end of each sprint a retrospective session is performed. The whole team, including the change owner, participates. In these retrospectives, the overall plan will be updated. Task success of tasks in the “Adjust” column is evaluated, goals are adjusted, and cards from “Adjust” are moved to “Backlog” again. The tasks in the backlog may be updated if necessary. The principle of continuous improvement is used for the ongoing improvement process itself as well.
Concept 5: Daily Kaizen Stand-Ups
Every morning the whole team meets for at most fifteen minutes in a room. To increase team dynamics and to speed up the meetings everybody should stand. Everybody reports on his tasks following three standard questions:
- What have I achieved yesterday? (Cards are pulled through the columns accordingly.)
- What will I be doing today? (Again, cards are pulled.)
- Which issues did come up, where do I need help from others? (If necessary, cards are moved to the “Impediments” swim lane or new impediment cards are added.)
These Daily Kaizen Stand-Ups should be seen as small-scale retrospectives.
Like “conventional” continuous improvement, Agile Kaizen needs to be streamlined and interwoven within the daily work that shall be improved. The best way to do this is to directly change the process while working “within” it, instead of building big theories and plans of “what should be done.” This is also the only way to reduce the overhead of the improvement process and to identify failed improvement actions quickly.
To make sure that speed and priority of change are transparent to everybody involved, the number of sprints needs to be small as well. Six sprints, meaning six weeks in the ideal case, should be the guideline. Here is a suggestion for a sprint scheme:
- Warming Up Sprint: For teams who have not used the Agile Kaizen approach a sprint at the beginning can be used to get into the process.
- Pilot Sprint: When changes have an effect on people outside of the core team, in the pilot sprint first trials with stakeholders are a good idea.
- Speed Up Sprint: While the first two sprints can show slow progress, focus in this sprint should be to gain more momentum.
- Productivity Sprint: This sprint should show the first huge gain in improvement results.
- Stabilizing Sprint: The success of the productivity sprint is made repeatable throughout the whole process that is improved.
- Sustainability Sprint: This sprint focuses on tasks that are required to make the success of the improvement activities survive. The retrospective of the sustainability sprint can trigger the next continuous improvement topic.
When Joel asked me to write a guest post, he also suggested to write about “what I wish I had known earlier about Lean.” For me one of many possible answers could have been:
I wish I had fully understood how important speed is for continuous improvement.”
Have you underestimated that as well? What do you think?
Joel’s Two-Cents: Jens was a bit humble about his own work in his personal biography, so I’d like to say a few words on his behalf. Jens’ operates one of my absolute favorite blogs on Lean thinking and self-improvement at LeanSelf.org. As you can see from the above post, he is an extremely knowledgeable Lean thinker and an engaging author whose posts you will find applicable to the improvement of all facets of life. Please do check out his site.