"KAIZEN" OR CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT - BUT HOW?
Since the mid-80's, we have been hearing a lot about the Japanese objective for continuous improvement called "kaizen" (ky'zen). Although this concept is as old as civilization, only a minority of individuals and corporations seem to continuously improve. A saying for non-growing adults is: " dead at 40 and buried at 85." And, if firms don't change with the times and improve at a greater rate than competitors, then they deteriorate quickly these days.
Most everyone wants to improve, but few do, perhaps because only a few people completely understand the process for how we grow and change. If so, then leaders have a two-fold challenge: first, to learn how to grow themselves to serve as role models for the rest; and second, to understand the growth process so well that they can teach it to others.
A gem of a book that addresses this challenge of growth is Mastery by George Leonard (Dutton, 1991). His diagram for growth is below:
The diagram suggests that for any chosen area of growth - psychological, parenting, leadership, spiritual, or golf-all progress must occur in stair steps instead of a steady climb. And, most of the time is spent on plateaus which could be frustrating for impatient achievers. If lengthy plateaus are, however, a fact of life, perhaps we should look for the good within them. Plateaus are, for example, where all the learning occurs and where the critical, and often overlooked details that support sustainable success reside.
HOW DO WE LEARN?
On a plateau is where we must identify all of the critical sub-elements that must come together to make a bigger accomplishment happen. There are, for example, over 10 elements to a perfect golf or tennis swing. After mastering each chronological part of a swing's kinetic-chain and converting them all into habit, a person can then work on a higher level of problems like rhythm, timing and control. With perfect strokes, a person's game can continue to improve. If there are flaws, then the quality and consistency of the stroke output will be forever sub-optimal especially under pressure or after even short lay-offs.
The improvement diagram above doesn't seem to allow for quick-fixes or shortcuts. If we skim over some of the sub-elements, they will create a flaw in the structure which will later undermine it. Many fast-growth companies get lots of media hype on the way up mostly for stock-price and money-raising reasons. But, when the industry matures or the economy turns down, many high-fliers crash, because they were hastily and poorly built organizations all along.
The fastest way to relative success can often be to know and stick with the right path of improvement. Remember that many individuals and firms aren't learning and growing, but managing and repeating the past. And, many of the forward-chargers are going down wrong paths. It pays to: do some research and planning; hire the best teachers who have already been down the right path and know how to explain it; and be patient with mastering each plateau. Steady growing turtles usually beat fast, misdirected hares in the long run.
Plateau learning also involves lots of failures. When we try new things we will fail and look foolish to non-growers, but it is important not to care about their misguided opinions, because there is no other way to learn. We must continuously repeat a cycle of:
1) asking questions;
2) proposing theories or solutions for those questions;
3) testing the theories with cheap, well-designed experiments;
4) learning from mostly failed experiments which starts the cycle over with new questions.
These learning cycles allow us to creep along the plateau towards the next breakthrough and integration point.
APPLICATIONS FOR THIS LEARNING THEORY
Mastering sports is a best, first application for the improvement process, because sports are visible, measurable and familiar to many. Technique-rich, life-sports like golf, tennis and martial arts have ways to score the milestones individuals pass on their lifetime journey towards perfection.
Everyone who is physically able should consider pursuing some athletic craft as a healthy habit, but also to practice the improvement process. Too many athletic participants are obsessed, however, with results and comparative, competitive standings instead of the joy, intrigue and rhythm of the process. If more people pursued the improvement process, they would find that their competitive results would improve faster as a by-product.
If we can master the improvement process through sports, then we could next apply it to personal improvement areas like psychological maturity, leadership and parenting ability which are all heavily interlinked. These areas aren't so visible or measurable. Good coaches are hard to find, and then they can only provide guidelines for us instead of modeling the exact techniques found in sports.
In business, we could next try to coach followers to improve themselves in alignment with corporate direction and programs. Teaching the improvement process and the philosophies that go with it, is the best way to better learn it for ourselves.
Continuous improvement is the way to go for both individuals and firms, but we need to know how the improvement process works and have faith in its long term advantages. Leaders can not start to transform their businesses until they can continuously transform themselves in multiple areas. Then, they can start to become credible models and skilled teachers who can help followers transform themselves. Self-growing followers will add up to corporate transformation ability and sustainable profits instead of failure in a fast changing world.
Merrifield Consulting Group, Inc., Article 2.7