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Leadership and Kaizen

| May 28, 2009

by Jim Bruce

Somehow, Tuesday came and I was completely oblivious to my commitment to send out something for everyone to reflect on.  Don’t know where my thoughts were that morning!  In spite of my forgetfulness, we do have a very good piece for this week from ITLP IX’s Vision Team – Tom Lewis (University of Washington), Todd Rheinfrank (Carnegie Mellon University), Randy Standridge (University of Texas),  Beth-Anne Sullivan (Northeastern University), Terry Tatum (University of Texas), and Elease Welch (New York University).  They sent this essay to Group IX in late April as part of the group’s continuing efforts to encourage their colleagues in being more leaderly.  I think their reflections on Kaizen may be interesting to all of you.  .  .  .  .  .   jim

Leadership and Kaizen

I have been trying to manage a restive staff through more than a year of organizational churn and tremendous budget challenges, the latter entailing layoffs, salary and travel freezes, and diminished professional development opportunities.  My team well understands the deep economic difficulties nationally, in Washington state, and at the UW.  Still, their skills are such that they can garner jobs elsewhere, and morale has ebbed, especially lately.

My more mystical wanderings recently led me to discover Kaizen, a Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement throughout all facets of life.  Many of you may remember Kaizen from the 80’s, during the wave of interest in Japanese management practices, with its focus on continuous improvement in the workplace.

Absent the usual pecuniary levers to reward great work and lacking the training and travel opportunities to help people grow, Kaizen has provided me with an unexpected tool to motivate the team and to more deeply implicate them in our work during these troubled times.  As I am using it, Kaizen involves *everyone* in the continuous improvement of our work.  At its heart, it means that my people are my most important asset.  I can help them grow and unleash their potential by tasking them with improving our work processes gradually, in ways that we can measure.

My development team has started by having quick, daily check-ins: what worked yesterday, what didn’t, what will we do today (this may be familiar to SCRUM development practitioners)?  Working with my managerial colleague, we have been assembling small, diverse teams to look at key processes across all of our activities, suggest improvements, and then implement them, one or a few steps at a time.  These efforts have led us to drop certain products or services that are no longer as valuable as they once were, to market existing services more aggressively, to seek new constituencies, and to more coherently collect and disseminate statistics and stories about our work.  Finally, my development team now has a greater role in prioritizing their weekly work and has done remarkably well in balancing the tactical with the strategic.  We now have a better mix of easy, quick-win projects and harder, more challenging, long-term efforts.

All in all, we have become more agile and have stopped doing some things that no longer make sense.  We have also become more intentional while at the same time becoming more experimental – try something new, and if it doesn’t work try something else.  Ownership and responsibility for the work has risen, and motivation has rebounded a bit because team members see themselves in their daily work.  And frankly, these folks are smarter than I am, so delegation helps us all out!

So, give Kaizen a try.  It just might make your job easier.