Kaizen and the art of IT management

I thought I had finally been able to put the nightmare behind me. But then, the other night at a work function, someone brought it back: the concept of “Kaizen.”

It’s a simple enough sounding term, and it even has positive connotations, being the Japanese for “improvement.” For me, however, it evokes chills. At my previous employer – one of Canada’s largest magazine publishers and printing firms – Kaizen was embraced with the same religious fervor as Jack Welch’s books and the 50 Best Managed Companies List. We were all taken to a half-day event at a nearby hotel where our president announced the decision to adopt the Kaizen approach and how it would transform our business. Imagine that: a business transformation process that makes no mention of IT.

This is what we were told about Kaizen: That it was based on something used by Toyota in its production environment, and it was based on the idea of continuous improvements, and that periodically as we encountered business challenges in various departments we would use Kaizen to work with others to develop innovative solutions. That was really about it. No facilitators to walk us through an example, no outline of how the process would work. Not even a video.

I remember standing in the hallway that afternoon during a break and discussing what we felt was a pressing issue with some coworkers. “Okay now,” I said, as people started to raise potential ideas, “Don’t have a Kaizen!” Oh, how we laughed. Bitterly.

Like Lean, Six Sigma and other methodologies, I’m aware that IT departments in some companies have had to use Kaizen as a way of working. I’m sure that at least in some cases it makes a lot of sense for them. But my experience with it reminds me that technology is not the only area in which companies routinely fail to provide an adequate focus on user design and training. If we’d bothered, our staff could have found ample information on Kaizen on Wikipedia (although I’m not sure we had Wikipedia back then) or even gone to the library to pursue our own self-development. None of us did that, because the company simply latched on to an obscure piece of jargon and hoped the process would lead itself. Instead, that afternoon briefing and turned out to violate Kaizen’s cardinal rule: it was a waste.

If you break it down, “kai” means “change” and “zen” means good. Enterprise IT, if managed properly, adheres to Kaizen in two ways, even if the approach isn’t consciously adopted by a company. Technology – by reducing manual work, improving communication and monitoring business activity – can be a change for the good in itself. The disruptions it often introduces, however, requires a spirit of continuous improvement.

Enterprise IT can also be simply a tool that helps others bring about a change for the good, either by sharing knowledge, tracking information or providing historical data analysis. It can be the engine of continuous improvement. As an industry we focus on the improvement side but shy away from the continuous elements, because they imply ongoing costs or resources. You don’t get continuous improvement without those investments, however. You also don’t get it if you don’t invest in the leadership necessary to get Kaizen going properly.

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