Last updated on | Agile General Knowledge

Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement

by Andy Cleff
continuous improvement

Continuous Improvement: If you think you can make something better (in your personal life, within a team, in a collection of systems you work with, or a process in your company), do it.

continuous improvement
Source: Andrew Cleff


“Kaizen” is made up of two Chinese characters: 改 kai = “change” + 善 zen = “good” – So kaizen translates literally as “good change” – i.e, improvement, betterment, or refinement. It has been colloquialized in today’s business parlance to add the concepts of “continuous” and “incremental.”  So in our context, kaizen refers to a philosophy that focuses on the incremental, continuous improvement of working practices.

A common western attitude may be summarized as, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  The Kaizen philosophy, on the other hand, is to “do it better, make it better, improve it even if it isn’t broken, because if we don’t, we can’t compete with those who do.”

Get Everyone Involved

Participation in kaizen is not limited to a specific area (such as engineering), nor do ideas for change come from specific roles within an organization. The best approach includes everyone – Development, Design, Customer Service, Marketing, Management, Facilities. Everyone. You. Me.

The collective pursuit of continuous improvement is powerful – it gives an organization the ability to maneuver through unclear and unpredictable territory. (See Navigating Complexity aka Cynefin for Dummies)

Furthermore it is generally better to have a large group of people regularly, systematically, and methodically making many small improvements every day rather than a small group doing periodic big changes. (Kaikaku – radical change during a limited time – on the other hand, is not out of the question…)

Get Started

Toyota, as part of their Toyota Production System (TPS), developed a method for approaching continuous improvement that became known as the Toyota Kata. (The word kata comes from the martial arts. It is a set of exercises for practitioners that provides a form of both mental and physical patterns.) The TPS sequence is:

  1. What is the target condition? (The future vision)
  2. What is the actual condition now? What is the current problem we are trying to solve? (Go and see)
  3. What obstacles do we think are preventing us from reaching the target condition?
  4. What might be our next step? (There are so many possibilities)
  5. When could we go and see what we have learned from taking that next step?

Probe, Sense, and Respond

In most of what we do, the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect. Uncertainty is normal – the obstacles and the potential paths to our target cannot be accurately predicted. To complicate things actual conditions might also be fuzzy.

Therefore our primary focus should not be in coming up with solutions per se, but instead on designing experiments that will help us to understand the current situation better.

That way, through continuous trial and error, questioning, reasoning, debriefing and reflection we obtain trial and success.

Experimental Design

I recently joined Esther Derby on one of her Q&A teleconferences. She presented ten questions to consider when designing experiments. These apply nicely to kaizen:

  1. What factors may contribute to the current problem / situation?
  2. Which factors can you control and / or influence?
  3. What is your rationale for choosing this particular experiment?
  4. What question(s) are you trying to answer with your experiment?
  5. What can you observe about the situation as it is now?
  6. How might you detect that your experiment is moving the situation in the desired direction?
  7. How might you detect that your experiment is moving the situation in an undesired direction?
  8. What is the natural time scale of the experiment? When might you expect to see results?
  9. If things get worse, how will you recover the situation?
  10. If things improve, how will you amplify or spread the experiment?

Be Transparent

After design, get a few experiments underway and then make them visible. The benefits of sharing (vs. going skunkworks) are many:

  • Others may have had similar obstacles and solved for them already. Why reinvent the wheel? Instead, see if you can make it better.
  • There may be hidden success in a failed experiment, or failure lurking in a success, either concealed by any number of cognitive biases from which the experimenter is suffering.
  • A successful change that becomes a “continue” action for one group could well become a “start” for another.

Another benefit of transparency and “including everyone” is that we get to collectively enjoy and celebrate progress. And that passion and confidence can be contagious, especially when the results over time are significant.

Rinse and Repeat

Recall our shared definition of kaizen… not simply good change, but continuous improvement. That approach includes not just “introducing new changes” but examining “old changes” as well.

Once a new change has been implemented, check back to see if things have taken hold. Contemplate things in any retrospective framework you like:

  • What is working well and can be expanded or applied to other areas?
  • Can the change be refined – reducing effort / time spent (See The 3M’s of Waste: Muda, Muda, and Mura)
  • Has a local peak been reached or is there more good change to be made?

Spread the Culture

If a kaizen approach is something new to the organization you’re part of, perhaps start with your own team. Your success and your transparency might just make other teams wonder, “What’s going on over there, in their yard? They seem to be slaying it… perhaps I’ll go and see.”

When interacting with other teams, don’t hold back from providing prompt, effective and constructive feedback on how the “interface” is or is not working. Sketch a picture of a possible better future. And then invite collaboration in the lab.

If your team is on the receiving end of feedback, be open and receptive. Ask clarifying questions, and get to a shared understanding of how both teams would like things to be.

Never be satisfied with what you or your team has accomplished today – keep looking for ways to make things better tomorrow.


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Andy Cleff

About Andy Cleff

Andy Cleff is an experienced and pragmatic agile practitioner. He take teams beyond “getting agile” to “embracing agile” via mentoring, coaching and facilitation. He is also a member of the Agile Uprising Coalition. As he guides teams towards the deliberate and joyful pursuit of high performance, his chief weapons are well-asked questions, insightful retrospectives and an ability to withstand awkward silences. And when all else fails, there’s always chocolate … or beer… or chocolate porter


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