This blog post is all about: Kaizen as an attitude (and not a buzzword!), role of everyday flexibility, reducing inertia by dissecting the problems, habit of continuous introspection and in the end - why you should always look for exponential effects (both positive & negative) - as these are the only ones that do really matter.
I don't know about you, but I had (in my so-called engineering career) few enlightenment moments that have redefined me professionally - shaken my work paradigm in a way that I've completely revamped my approach - to work in general and to some particular aspects as well.
One of these landmarks was reading Goldratt's "The Goal" (and subsequently diving deeper with Anderson's "Kanban" & Reinertsen's "The Principles of Product Development Flow"). No, I'm not planning to go through the theory of constraints or lean principles in detail - my intent is to focus on how I use these concepts everyday to implement Kaizen (culture of Continuous Improvement) in practice - in both personal & professional life.
Wait - but why this topic? Why Kaizen (in particular)?
21st century is the era of buzzwords - everyone can write whatever they want (e.g. in their CVs) and this bullshit immediately gets to the global audience. As a result, some words' value has incredibly de-valuated recently. I've just collected tons of applications for the (Software) Engineering Manager position - all of the candidates present themselves as "agile to the bone", "follow lean practices", "are servant leaders" & "cultivate Continuous Improvement". But when I dive into the details, when I do an environmental research - in many, many cases NONE of that is true!
So? Does it mean that Kaizen is an empty slogan? A well-resonating idea that's just not implementable (in practice)? Or maybe we just present it in an over-idealised way (aimed only to inspire?), but the "real Kaizen" (met "in the trenches") is very different (and much more ... mundane)?
Kaizen is real & you can't mistake it with anything else (when you encounter it). Getting there is just a matter of: discipline, persistence, understanding where value is, real data, high awareness (of what you're doing), ownership (over what you're doing & related metrics) and (at least but not least) correct ATTITUDE.
OK, so what's my regime (uhm, routine) for Kaizen?
No long-term schedules. No calendars. No to-do lists. No due dates (except external dependencies). Just the fluent flow of work:
Idea > Evaluated Idea > Ready To Do > Today > Doing > Done > Archived
My strategic plans are just goals / problems / risks that get crunched & split when it's the time. To avoid clogging the system I treat separately stuff that is urgent & that is critical (as these are two completely different things) & secure enough "bandwidth" for both streams.
Planning is a continuous effort & it's most valuable output is the knowledge, not the plans themselves. Plans do change everyday, it's the general direction that has to be consistent (but not carved in stone). JIT planning makes me able to adjust it on the daily basis.
Re-prioritisation happens all the time. Based on urgency, importance, new information, random events, environmental conditions, people needing help - etc. All these factors are taken under consideration (but w/o over-thinking) - the decision (on the priorities) doesn't have to be perfect, it has to be FAST.
And there are no sentiments - one has to be realistic about how much work can be done (by you, within a time-frame), whether a particular topic is really essential, who can do that (potentially, instead of you), etc. If you can't realistically assess these - failure is imminent.
Slice all the elephants
Divide and conquer - split bigger topics into smaller parts that:
- have clear success criteria (are "finishable")
- are small enough to perceive the satisfying feeling of progress (this is far MORE important than you may think) & avoid excessive context switching
Aaaahh, one more important thing - make it VISUAL, or it doesn't count. Seriously. Saying that 1 picture is worth 1000 words is rather an understatement than an exaggeration. F#ck all the complex notations (UMLs, BPMNs, etc.), just use mind-mapping, post-its, boxes & circles - whatever. The more approachable, the better.
This will prevent you from drifting, help preserving transparency, provide necessary data to track real progress, enable evolutionary style of work & many more.
I think, therefore I introspect
Don't just DO work. INTROSPECT into work.
When? Everyday! Make it a habit!
How? Make sure that the work has a side effect of collecting essential metrics related to this work - its efficiency, quality, velocity - whatever matters in context of goals. If you're struggling with do that ... don't give up - rather think about what's wrong with the work you're doing (or the way you're doing it).
And then start the OODA cycle:
- collect the (measured) data & crunch it
- come up with conclusions (or rather - hypotheses)
- propose & implement experiments (not too many, 1 or 2 may be enough)
- rinse & repeat
This is REAL Kaizen.
Real Kaizen happens all the time. In contrary to so-called "retrospectives" (bunch of unprepared people drawing opinion-based "conclusions" ad-hoc out of their asses) or "sweet farting sessions" ("we were awesome this Sprint and now when we'll try even harder, we will be super-awesome") ...
X: Is this a fact or an opinion?
Y: It's my opinion, based on my expertise & knowledge.
X: Come back when you're really prepared.
Exponential effects >>> linear effects
Kaizen does not have to be just a buzzword.
It can be both: the most SIMPLE and the most EFFECTIVE approach to any kind of labour. If and only if embraced fully and in essence.
You can't do Kaizen if:
- people doing work do not own the key metrics (that depict goals of the work)
- people doing work do not understand the transparency (what it really means)
- people doing work do not apply lean practices (e.g. can't recognise waste, ignore bottlenecks)
- there's no real data (collected) to reason upon
And what happens when you do Kaizen (for real)?
It's pure mathematics and there's no exaggeration in it - changes in quality/velocity/efficiency do accumulate exponentially - both positive and negative ones. If you get 1% faster today, tomorrow you'll be 1% faster in making yourself even faster (1.01 * 1.01 * ...). And on the other hand, if you e.g. introduce technical debt slowing everything down gradually by 1% every week, the effect will multiply weekly (0.99 * 0.99 * ...) ...
Over the time exponential effect will ALWAYS beat the linear one - they do not even play in the same league!