Mar 06, 2007

Kaizen and Interactive Development

If you're familiar with the concept of kaizen at all, it's probably in the context of manufacturing or other assembly-line practices, not in the context of creative work. Kaizen is a Japanese term that, roughly translates to "continuous improvement." However, there is a lot more implied by it than the standard Western idea of continuous improvement. There is an element of "respect for people" implied in the idea of kaizen, and three guiding principles must be in place for true kaizen: focus on results and process; big-picture, systemic thinking; and a non-judgmental, non-blaming attitude (blame-laying being considered a waste of time and energy).

As an interactive agency, we're in a radically new industry that blends the creative with the technological. From a project management standpoint, a kaizen attitude is a great fit for process improvement, because it works well with both the very human creative elements and the very practical process and delivery elements. With each new project, we experiment, learn new and better processes, and we implement them and carry them forward into the next project. We also learn from things that didn't work well, and eliminate those elements from the process as we go. I'm not saying that we are formally instituting kaizen here at LEAP; just that the improvement process here feels, to me at least, very much like kaizen.

Often in business, instead of making small, incremental changes, you determine that you’re going to “do it right. “Doing it right" means taking time, making preparations, setting the stage, and totally implementing a complete, fully-formed new way of doing things.

But there are a lot of problems with this approach. First, it fails to take into account the shifting, continuously moving nature of work. By insisting on completely defining both the problem and solution in detail first, a person or organization can effectively postpone making any changes …pretty much forever. Second, it fails to take into account the complex nature of change and how even a small change can have difficult-to-predict outcomes that then need to be dealt with. By trying to implement massive, all-at-once, “programs" of change, an organization is effectively tacking learning the new way, maintaining the new way (building new habits and breaking old ones), troubleshooting the new way (dealing with the inevitable “oops, didn’t think about that” items), and improving the new way simultaneously. In short, it’s a great way to set yourself up for failure.

As LEAP moves forward and continues to grow, we’ll need to keep improving to continue to exceed client expectations. That means improving one task at at time, one project at a time, continuously, with respect for the creative people who are part of our team and with an eye on the big picture.


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