by Rick Sidorowicz
Chances are that once the word kaizen enters the vocabulary of your business you can kiss any hope of a breakthrough in performance goodbye. This has very little to do with the meaning of the word, as continuous improvement towards perfection is a most fundamental and ‘noble’ concept for business. There is, however, a very high probability that when a bureaucracy ‘embraces’ kaizen or continuous incremental improvement, nothing of major significance will be allowed to happen.
Bureaucracies have an uncanny and extremely powerful capability for self preservation and survival. Gareth Morgan illustrates the point:
Perhaps we’re really dealing with the fundamental nature of individuals as they organize in groups but in any event, you can be reasonably certain that all the mysterious forces at work in a formal bureaucracy will be directed primarily for the purpose of self preservation, especially during any concerted effort of re-engineering, turnaround, or performance improvement.
In many respects it’s obvious that organizations seek to stabilize, secure, and maintain predictability. What’s not so obvious is the degree to which organizations (and the individuals in them) will rationalize, distort, internalize and embrace anything in order to survive (i.e. remain the same.) The fundamental error of judgment is in the sameness and the fear of abandoning the known and secure, no matter how certain the impending demise may be.
But back to kaizen. Bureaucracies love kaizen because the individuals in bureaucracies interpret it to be a most noble and overtly responsible process of gradual and incremental improvement. Kaizen is contemporary (at least for North American firms), and gradual (read non-threatening and ‘manageable’), and incremental (small, safe, baby steps), and ‘correct’ (we are committed to excellence ... blah, blah, blah). The bottom line is that it is the greatest defence to tampering with anything of significance that might ‘rock the boat.’ Keep it safe. Keep it contained. Keep it under control. Manage the risk. We wouldn’t want anything too dramatic to happen.
The fundamental problem. Kaizen as a business practice emerged in a pursuit of perfection of business processes. And this pursuit of perfection was what was contemplated only after an enterprise first practiced kaikaku, the radical redesign and recreation of the methods of executing business and production. Kaikaku or radical improvement was the source of the breakthroughs in performance and accelerated growth. Kaizen is the powerful follow-up drive to perfect the processes and methods and to continue to adapt and be relevant.
Notice that you don’t hear much about kaikaku in business today? You likely won’t - simply because it’s a very dangerous notion. It attacks the very heart of bureaucracies - the muda , the waste, the monuments, the downtime, the scrap, the inefficiency, and the stupidity.
Many more articles in Leading Change in The CEO Refresher Archives