Kaizen, or continuous improvement, is a well-known term in business or industrial organization. It’s now spreading widely in every sector of the economy, but it also applies in social life or medicine. This philosophy arose in Japan. Their industry had productivity and quality problems after the end of World War II. They looked for solutions, and brought experts such as Deming. Yes, the same Deming of ITIL and the “plan-do-check-act” Deming cycle. His mission: training hundreds of professionals and engineers in quality and improvement systems. These methods had already been applied in the USA. But Japan developed them and improved them. They refined them to such an extent that years later they could return them to the Americans themselves as new work philosophies.
The principle behind Kaizen is to carry out small continuous improvements. The results of those changes are analysed and the fine-tuning resumes. In that way the productivity or quality of the task being performed can be improved. Making small changes little by little is far more effective than trying to tackle everything in one go. This way you avoid the fear of big change—and the procrastination that normally goes with it —when faced with the idea of starting a transformation. These small adjustments, done continuously, end up becoming a habit and generating permanent results.
The idea is to make changes so easy that it would be hard to fail in their implementation. First we created the habit of changing. Then we add new changes or nudge the milestone of a change a bit further, so we can improve incrementally. It’s important to apply adjustments one by one. The idea is to avoid the complexity of choosing what to apply and when. That way we will be able to analyse the result of each of these minor improvements. If we apply several at the same time, we won’t know which one has worked and which hasn’t. Or whether the effect of one has cancelled out another.
In your project you can decide to deploy every SCRUM, TDD, unit testing, continuous integration, and so on and so forth all at once. But probably the only thing you’ll manage to do will be to drive your team crazy. Yes, all those practices are good for your project, but, are the most basic ones working? Do you have good version control? Are you delivering software every two weeks? It’s better to start by the simplest ones or the ones that you consider most effective to improve your situation. Then you will be able to add the others.
Even far away from the field of software, there are companies that use Kaizen and Lean techniques in production. Take, for example, SPB, manufacturers of household brands like Bosque Verde in Spain. Their industrial manager declares:
“SPB has improved its productivity by 15% without investing in new machinery or carrying out staff cuts. The systems we have applied have enabled our company to reduce our expense accounts from 15 to 25%. We have improved our raw-materials management by 45%. And we have reduced the stock period of our product to eleven days.”
SPB had foreseen that to improve, they would need great investments and opening new factories in northern Spain. But instead they have focused on improving their productivity plan.
We can apply such changes to improve our health or personal life too. If we have always wanted to write a book or a blog, we can set out to write 1,000 words a day. But most of us will probably abandon that idea in only a few days. However, if we set out to write just 50, the change will be so easy that it will be hard to fail. First, establish the habit of sitting and writing for 15 minutes a day. Then we can take the challenge further and make it bigger, little by little.
In my case, I have also applied similar techniques, but I’ve hardly noticed. When I published my book it hardly sold at all. For weeks and weeks it had just the few sales I considered F&F (Family & Friends). But I didn’t just park it there and forget about it. I changed it to a different Amazon category. Then I changed the cover. After that, I included some new chapters. Later, I improved the description until I found one that seemed optimal. Some of these changes made my sales increase up to 50% in a week. If I had just left it there, the book would never have reached decent positions in its categories. I would have concluded that the content wasn’t interesting. Or that it just could not sell well without a professional publishing house to support it.
You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).