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During this week, the Gang of Seven will be exploring the topic of kaizen – continuous improvement – and how it can be applied to project settings, where teams of people may only be working together for the duration of a project. Today’s topic is “the case for kaizen on projects.” As a first step, I’d like to clarify what the similarities and differences are between kaizen and innovation.

Kaizen is a Japanese system of incremental innovation, where employees are encouraged to make small changes in their work area on an ongoing basis. The cumulative effect of these many small changes over time can be quite significant, especially if all of the employees within a company and its leaders are committed to kaizen. Although kaizen was first used to increase the efficiency of manufacturing processes, it isn’t limited to that application. The concept is equally applicable to many types of organizational functions, such as sales, accounting, engineering and customer service, and to improving the efficiency of business models and supply chains, which extend beyond the company.

The Japanese make a distinction between kaizen and innovation: Kaizen is gradual, while innovation is viewed as being more radical. Here are some of the similarities and differences between the two concepts, which I think will help you to understand how they relate to each other:

Both innovation and kaizen require the involvement and commitment of top management.

Similarities

Both innovation and kaizen require the involvement and commitment of top management. Employees must be trained in the new processes, procedures and mindset that they must follow to be successful and to contribute to the company’s vision for incremental or radical improvement. And leadership must help the company to maintain its focus and momentum, which will naturally tend to deteriorate over time.

The flip side of this leadership opportunity is that changes in top management can easily derail kaizen and innovation initiatives. In both cases, new executives often bring their own agendas that they want to accomplish, and there’s a natural tendency for them to want to put their imprimatur on the organization’s mission and direction. Top management may also unwittingly stifle continuous improvement and innovation by discouraging new ideas, fearing failure, and demonstrating a lack of interest in fresh thinking.

The foundation of both kaizen and innovation is ideas – creative ways of looking at your job and your workspace, with an eye toward reducing waste, eliminating steps that don’t add value and creating new value.

Both kaizen and innovation can be used together to help propel a company to prominence in its industry. Radical changes to an organization’s product line, business model or other operational area – dubbed kaikaku by the Japanese – provides the breakthrough in performance and growth, while kaizen can help the company to maintain its momentum, and to perfect its new products, processes and business model.

Differences

In bureaucratic organizations, managers may see kaizen as a way to shield themselves from radical changes.

According to one article I read while researching this topic (link), kaizen and innovation may sometimes work at odds with each other. In bureaucratic organizations, managers may see kaizen as a way to shield themselves from radical changes. In other words, making incremental changes is seen as being “safe” – they usually require low risk and low investment, and thus may eliminate any need in their minds to radically rethink the way they do business, or overlooking radical changes taking place within their industry. Imagine buggywhip manufacturers engaged in continuous improvement, while totally overlooking the rise of the automobile.

Kaizen is focused on empowering each employee to make easy, incremental and immediate improvements to their work area and processes, without having to get anyone else’s approval, and then briefly document their kaizen so that others may benefit from it. It’s everyone’s job. In contrast, innovation is usually the focus of a small strategic team within the organization. It’s not part of everyone else’s job. The most forward thinking companies are headed that direction, working to make innovation a part of their organizational DNA.  But most are far from that point.

Challenges for projects

Bringing kaizen to the project setting is bound to be challenging, especially for American companies. Most project teams are transient, of course. They come together to get a project done, and then usually disband after the project is completed. Based on my experience in working with and leading teams, many of them are simply focused on getting the project done, because they have so much other work to do and so little time in which to do it. They’re loathe to stop and rethink the whole process by which they are organizing, implementing and measuring their progress. If team members don’t have a clear shared vision of what they’re trying to accomplish, any attempts at improving the project process may be regarded with suspicion or downright hostility.

I would guess that American project teams face interpersonal issues as well: All too often, we experience the results of a dysfunctional team that can’t seem to make progress because of personality conflicts between team members. Often, these are people who have strong personalities, who may be trying to push their own agenda as to what the project should look like, or who have underlying political motives for sabotaging the project. Do the same cultural issues arise in Japanese project teams, or is there more of a mindset of working together for the common good?

Links to the rest of the gang

If you’re interested in what the rest of the “Gang of Seven” has to say about project teams and kaizen, here are links to some of their blogs:

They have already posted some great stuff to their blogs – I strongly urge you to read them, since the concepts of kaizen and innovation are so closely related.

Listen to this podcast to find out what roles curiosity and humility play in innovation.