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Kai and Zen: 5 Steps to Making Good Change Stick

Change is inevitable and it's hard, but how you lead it sets the tone for your entire organization. While achieving short-term deliverables is possible using fear as your dominant motivator, the probability of making long-term improvements stick from short-term thinking, or from too big of an improvement project, is nil. That kind of change is bad. Make change good however, and the corresponding improvements become sustainable, and appreciated by those whose lives are influenced by it.

1 How do you make good change stick?
A kaizen event, (Kai and Zen—the Japanese terms for Good and Change), is a tool to help the CEO, and teams they lead, make ‘good change’ stick. Kaizen was once thought of as a way only to increase plant productivity. But today, it is used effectively in leadership development, sales training exercises, improved marketing efficiency, and to turn around a host of other issues that are currently driving employee morale to its lowest level in years.

2 How space exploration is using Kaizen
For Dave Howell, Director of Space Operations at ATK Aerospace, the company responsible for building the James Webb Telescope—an innovative and sophisticated telescope designed to see farther than man has ever peered into the universe—his team quickly recognized that a very effective way of implementing cross-functional cultural change across their senior leadership team was through kaizen activities. As an example, with the help and guidance of a non-parochial facilitator, “we were able to successfully integrate a vastly improved ‘new business’ planning standard that included management from Engineering, Operations, Business and Site Executive Leadership.”

“Using kaizen, ATK Aerospace was able to integrate a vastly improved ‘new business’ planning standard that included management from Engineering, Operations, Business and Site Executive Leadership.”

For Dave, the key to successful kaizen results are three-fold:

  1. Plan the future state for the required change
  2. Create a kaizen roadmap to the future state with achievable interim goals (possibly multiple kaizen activities)
  3. Sustain, sustain, sustain

3 Running a Kaizen event

  1. An on-site assessment process is conducted to identify the low-hanging fruit that will benefit from kaizen.
  2. Next, the team’s future deliverables are outlined four to six weeks prior to what will ultimately be two- or five-day improvement events.
  3. A team of colleagues is then put together. It’s important the team is made up of value-added employees who currently do the work and experience the conditions that will be improved, as they are best suited for eliminating the issues that prevent them from doing their jobs well. Two to three managers (or ‘change agents’), also should be active participants on the team to help ensure that the good change that was discussed gets implemented.

4 Size matters
A small change is more likely to be sustainable than a big change. Dr. Robert Mauert of the University of California at Los Angeles, and author of “The Spirit of Kaizen—Creating Lasting Excellence One Small Step At A Time,” recommends teams not try to tackle too much too soon. The amygdala, the portion of the brain that regulates our body’s natural response to fear, prevents us from making changes it believes are too radical. However, if we make small improvements, the amygdala is “tricked” into allowing these changes to move forward, since it doesn’t recognize the changes as being harmful to us. Kaizen events focus on making small changes by aligning people, process, productivity and purpose into a single event.

Depending on the magnitude of the issues, plan on either two or five days for your team’s first “good change” event. Everyone must be removed from production during this period, or good change will have little long-term effectiveness. I suggest you use a well-trained and neutral kaizen facilitator. They have fewer blind spots than those who experience the problems, and live with the current conditions every day. Facilitators also help coach the team, identify root causes of problems, and get the team “unstuck” while keeping them focused on finding solutions to achieve the deliverables they promised their colleagues and the C suite.

5 Communication efforts is key
After the changes are made and proven to be sustainable, most events include a reporting meeting where employees explain what they found, the changes they made, and the new deliverables they achieved. This activity is made by the team, not the kaizen leader; since he is simply a neutral coach and facilitator. It is made to everyone who has a vested stake in the area. It’s important this step be taken; it provides critical assurance to other employees that small good changes will soon be coming to their area, but provides clarity to employees in that area/region that their ideas and contributions, not management’s, will be the critical link to making change successful.

On the final day, and immediately after the team’s reporting session, a congratulatory celebration is sponsored by the executive team (this can be you) for the organization, and shared with everyone. It should be prepared by executives, and hand-served to employees. Don’t skimp—this celebration normally includes a finely prepared luncheon, and cake and ice cream for everyone in the region/area. In Japanese management, this is the “Praise Them” part of the Japanese Kaizen continuum of: “Tell Them, Show Them, Let Them Do It, and Praise Them”; an organizational improvement process that gives employees a reason to believe their input and curiosity regularly matters in improving the organization.

Regular Kaizen activities are fun, and they make improvements that not only affect productivity, but also the morale of those who do the CEO’s real customer-value-added work. True leaders make both Kai and Zen possible for those they lead.

Once it’s over, don’t give up. With chaos and fear affecting the work culture of today’s employees, the CEO can have a dramatic impact on the future of his or her people, their purpose, and their productivity. When everyone else is zigging, you should be zagging. Kaizen is a tool that allows you to do just that, since it helps you drive fear out of your workplace while everyone else is driving fear into theirs.


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