Continuous Process Improvement, Part 1: Focusing Kaizen

This article is the first in a series I am doing on Continuous Process Improvement (CPI).  CPI is a cornerstone behavior of a transformed organization: it is the engine of adaptation.  It is through the ability to reflect, analyze, and change that the organization can shift away from processes that no longer serve them to new ways of working that are now more effective at serving the goals of the business.  A mindset of constant collective improvement not only helps keep the organization fresh and aligned, but engages its members, drawing on their creative energies and grants them appropriate control/mastery over their environment.  By collaborating on how we can do our work better, we come together and make the habits of this body our own.  An engaged group is a powerful lever.


Kaizen is that attitude of maintaining the habit of constant little improvements.  Once an organization accepts this as everyday work, they wield a powerful tool for keeping themselves nimble in the face of the ebb and flow of change.  The idea is simple: examine where you are, process-wise; agree on where you want to be; and identify what next step can you inch you closer.

For many teams who are first starting this process, the list of improvements can be overwhelming.  It’s long and everything seems like a high priority.  How do they know where to start?

Faced with this problem, I came up with a simple tool to help teams quickly prioritize their efforts and get to a roadmap for change.  I call it “Kaizen Map”.

Herding The Archicats…

The story begins with a group of Architects (read: lots of strong personalities in the room).  This team is a critical part of a larger program (~100 people total engaged in a multi-system technology refresh); their job is to reflect on the first release (about six months in duration) and come up with problems that need attention.  Specifically, they need to identify the top one or two problems that require immediate attention and dig into those: showing what the root cause was and suggest some potential solutions.  They only have two hours to do this.  Part of the challenge is that they need to not just come up with ways to improve their own team’s performance, but the target two items need to be process improvement recommendations for the program leadership.

I knew it was going to be difficult to get through even just one item but I knew I needed to leave them with a backlog of potential improvements.  I had been storming over various ideas of how to herd these cats when, 10 minutes before the retrospective, I had that flash of inspiration.

Here’s what we did:

  1. Without a whiteboard in the room, I quickly fired-up Visio and drew a Cartesian coordinate system in standard orientation.  Along the abscissa I noted “Value” and down the ordinate I wrote “Level of Control”.
  2. I handed-out pads of sticky notes and pens.
  3. I oriented the crew toward our goal: we needed to come up with our top two suggestions for improvement.

… the crew began writing, some feverishly, others tapping pen to their yellow pads…

  1. One-by-one, I had them pass me the items.  I read them out loud so everyone knew what was going up.  The author always had some color to give and then a pinball of chatter. I gave ’em up to 1-2 minutes to bounce it around.
  2. Then I asked, “so, if we were to solve this problem, how much of an impact would this have on our ability to deliver (compared to the other items on the map)?” I walked up to the graph and positioned the sticky note horizontally according to consensus (higher-up the greater the impact).
  3. I followed on with, “okay, how much control do we have over this problem?  Is this something that we can completely solve ourselves?  Or does this require coordination with another group?  Or is this something that we’d need someone else outside this room to take on?”  I would slide the sticky note from left-to-right depending on their answer (the less control they had, the more to the right the item would slide).

… and we repeated this process for each new item.

Within 50 minutes, we had achieved our first pebblestone: identify the top two problems that needed to be address.  With the Kaizen Map, it was simple to see: the two top-right-most items were it (i.e. the two problems that, if solved, would make the biggest impact to the program’s ability to deliver and required the most help in addressing.

Over the next hour, the team tackled these two symptoms (using a technique I call “SCSC”, more on that in a subsequent post) and produced meaningful, supportable, actionable recommendations for the program to consider.

A Summit of Solutions

In this same program-wide retrospection, ten other teams went through similar exercises, independently, to produce their own program-level process improvement recommendations.  We then faced the task of prioritizing all of those items.  Each team sent a representative with their recommendations to a working session wherein we would coalesce all these items, prioritizing them against each other.  To do the relative prioritizing we again used the Kaizen Map:

  1. each representative presented their two recommendations, which spurred a discussion around the merits of the proposed solution.
  2. We asked the same two questions as before:
    1. what’s the impact and how much control do we have in implementing the solution?
    2. As a team, we determined the right spot on the map for each item.

Again, the power of the visual prioritization helped keep the tempo of the meeting at a proper clip: fast enough to get through the items, slow enough to allow the key elements of each solution to be presented and discussed.  From there this combined group (i.e. all of the teams making up the program) now had a backlog of improvement suggestions which they could continuously pull from.

The Kaizen Map is a worthwhile tool because it focuses the discussion around the two most important aspects of process improvement: putting our energies toward the changes that lead to the most value — maximum impact in our ability to deliver; and categorizing those items across the three major possible levels of control (each having a different kind of response).

Next Time…

In our next episode, we’ll dive into the problem-solving technique that the people in this program used to make potent improvement recommendations — ones that tie the lived experience of the participants to powerful solutions that were best poised to make real change — a technique I call SCSC.  Stay tuned…