Kaizen (改善), Japanese for “improvement”, or “change for the better” refers to philosophy or practices that focus upon continuous improvement of processes.
Teams I coach frequently ask me for “best practices”. Do not assume that “best practices” in previous projects will be equally successful in another project. In some cases, “best practices” from one context can be counter-productive in another context. Practices and processes from previous projects should be used for learning and improvement. No practice or process is both complete and optimal – once we master it at one level, we see deficiencies that were previously hidden and the cycle of improvement begins again. You should always challenge yourself to experiement and find better ways of doing things and beating your own standards for excellence –
Improvement usually means doing something that we have never done before.
— Shigeo Shingo
Mistakes are a part of being human. Mistakes are not a sign of failure. Appreciate mistakes mistakes for what they are – precious life lessons that are used for learning and for others to learn form. Part of continuous improvement is learning from mistakes. The only failure is the failure of not learning from your mistakes.
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
— Albert Einstein
James Hird, the coach of the Essendon Football Club (a team in the Australian Football League (AFL)) took over the coaching of a team this year that was struggling to win games in recent years. A priority for Hird was improvement in the team – “We’re trying to push for continual improvement.”
The club started the season well winning several games, however, they also made many mistakes along the way and had some big losses. The club learnt many valuable lessons from those demoralising losses which enabled it to obtain an all-important victory against the best team in the competition. One of the team players said:
“The coaches were never too up when we won and they were never too down when we lost.”
“The coaches are all just about learning, evolving and improving.”
Even when the team won games and making the finals was in sight, it was still about improvement and getting better. Hird is solely focused on continuing to develop his team – “improvement first, finals second.” Through continuous improvement, Hird believes they will build a good team that can compete effectively and achieve the goal of winning a finals premiership:
“Whether or not we make the finals this year… in 18 months time we want to keep coaching and teaching so we do become a good team.”
“Our team is not built on superstars it is built on all-round effort across the board.”
In a previous post, IDEO had a fail safe culture and which allowed them to fail often in order to succeed sooner:
Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.
It is important organizations foster continuous learning so teams constantly get better at everything they do—improving their work, making decisions, holding good meetings. That’s why successful teams emphasize continuous learning, always going over what they’ve done, identifying what went well and what didn’t, and finding ways to get better the next time around.
The following from Gemba Panta Rei highlights the importance of learning from mistakes through continuous improvemment:
Here are three important lessons from Irish novelist and playwright, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and wicked wit George Bernard Shaw:
“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”
We often say that continuous improvement depends on the ability of people to experiment, make mistakes, reflect and learn from the mistakes. It is truly honorable when leaders create an environment in which it is safe for people to experiment, fail and learn. In fact it may take more courage to allow others to make mistakes than to make mistakes oneself. The good results of these experiments we call kaizen, and the learning that occurs from poor results we call development of human potential. When we achieve good results free of mistakes we call it competence, but mostly it is luck.
“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”
While opinions and ideologies can be had and held with only minimal effort from our armchairs, facts require that we put forth some mental and physical effort. The act of observation requires presence and attention, the accuracy thereof open-mindedness and the will to release held opinions when they conflict with observed fact. Seeing the truth can be uncomfortable. Having truth that conflicts with one’s belief can be even more so. Pointing out the misconceptions in the minds of others can result in being called cynical or worse. Accurate observation must be preceded by and paired with education, alignment and commitment to act to improve a situation, regardless of our preconceived notions in order for continuous improvement to take root.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Joe Townsend has written an article along the lines what I have been saying for a while now – in Agile there is no ‘best practice’, and as Townsend puts it
What works for you, your team, division, corporation, etc. can bring another person, team, etc. to a screeching halt.
In particular, one needs to be very careful when trying to take waterfall best practices and trying to apply it to an agile context. Many of waterfall concepts and best practices are counter-productive and ineffective on agile projects.
Its only semantics, but the term ‘best practice’ often means this is the best way to do things and trumps all other approaches. I prefer the use the words ‘lesson learned’ or ‘guidance’. What one or more teams have done, should be used as a lesson learned that is to be adapted to the environment you are applying it to and used as guidance. No practice will work for everyone or every team in every context.
Before applying a lesson learned or guidance, you should ask yourself does it make sense and does it align with agile values and principles? Does it help me deliver software more quickly to my customers? Does it help with achieving technical excellence? Remember to discuss with the team before using any lesson learned or guidance.