I recently had the privilege of joining a Kaizen retreat. Having never been part of one, I did not know what to expect but was impressed by the overall outcome from it. Kaizen is a Japanese word for improvement. According to Wikipedia, kaizen refers to “activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line.” The approach has been used by many large companies to standardize the way of optimizing new and existing business processes.
I was asked to participate in a 5 day Kaizen. The business owners were in need of a software solution to convert paper-based forms to a web based platform. Initially 5 days seemed a little excessive. The paper form in question was about a page or two long at the most, but I was in no position to challenge what has been a very successful process at this particular company.
Having been in strategic planning for 10+ years, retreats were primarily a way to brainstorm big ideas and develop broader strategic plans and goals. These goals would then be assigned to owners responsible for developing tactics and project managers responsible for implementing projects aligned with the tactics. Typically, project plans were developed through interviews and work-groups that met every week or every other week. The process achieved desired results, however much of it was executed in an isolated fashion.
This is where Kaizen comes in. This is where the 5 days comes in. Kaizen requires the feedback from stakeholders to be collaborative. Key members of the process are brought to the table in order to understand the entire process. This would include those that physically “touch” the process, those that count on that process to do their jobs upstream or downstream, those that overlook the success of that project/tactic/goal, those in direct contact with customers, and so on.
The team is then tasked within those 5 days to understand the present condition, formulate the desired state, and develop a plan on how to reach that state. All members become equally accountable – having had dissected the process and develop a solution together in 5 days. Kaizen changes the trajectory of accountability throughout the lifetime of the project, which is one of businesses greatest challenges to success: How to make everyone accountable? Eliminating finger pointing and putting a heavier burden on the IT team for success.
I encourage companies seeking for a cost effective way to develop technology solutions to put in some front end investment and think about initiating a Kaizen process. The process does not complete the work, but, from what I can see thus far, sets the stage for success and improves overall productivity. For me, as a QA, it has enhanced communication, allowed me to step beyond the boundaries of my particular role, and enable me to ask questions that reflect the business process and customer experience.