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THE SPIRIT OF KAIZEN
Creating Lasting Excellence One Small Step at a Time
By Robert Maurer
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013Robert Maurer
All rights reserved.
A Swift Introduction to Kaizen
Business culture loves the idea of revolutionary, immediate change. But turnaround efforts often fail because radical change sets off our brain's fear response and shuts down our powers to think clearly and creatively. A more effective path to change begins with the small steps of kaizen. These quiet steps bypass our mental alarm system, allowing our creative and intellectual processes to flow without obstruction. The result: Change that is both lasting and powerful.
Leaders are often called upon to make significant improvements to their organizations—to cut costs, to create new products, to reduce mistakes, to improve service, and so on. It is possible to make these improvements by gritting your teeth, squaring your shoulders, and forging ahead no matter what the obstacles.
Possible, but not likely. Some managers enjoy this kind of bareknuckled attack on their organization's problems, and a few even succeed at it. Their stories are dramatic ("I led our team through a complete reorganization in six months!") and feature admirable determination ("I was poor and uneducated, but I didn't let anything stand in my way; now I'm the head of my own multibillion-dollar business!"), so they are the ones that draw our attention. If you absorb enough of these stories, you can easily get the impression that the only way to reach your management goals is to hurtle yourself at them, tearing down the fast track to success at breakneck speed and obliterating all barriers in your path. You can also draw the conclusion that if you haven't reached your goals, the reason must be that you're lacking in skill or good old-fashioned grit.
Not so. Most of us are programmed to resist radical change. Let me say that again: We are built to resist radical change. As you'll see in the coming pages, our nervous system wires us for resistance to a big overhaul of any kind. This truth applies not just to managers but also to the employees we need to carry out our programs for change. So if you've tried to change your organization and met with disappointment, there is no reason to feel guilty.
But there is reason to feel optimistic. Most groups can achieve success when they step off the fast track and take an alternative path. This path is soft underfoot and shaded overhead. It's such an unassuming little byway that it doesn't attract the world's notice, but believe me, some of the most successful people and organizations have been using it for decades with consistently good results. This path starts with the smallest of steps. It causes no stress, no fear ... and you can take it all the way to your goal.
But before I tell you more about kaizen, I'd like you to meet some struggling business owners.
"WE NEED SOMETHING BOLD AND INNOVATIVE!"
At the time this story began, I was a clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine; I specialized in teaching behavioral health. It was not long past graduation, and many of our students had been hired by existing physician groups or had banded together to start large groups of their own. Four of the doctors, however, had decided to create a small private practice devoted to family medicine. They were deliberate about this decision. They wanted to give their patients thoughtful, personal care, and they worried that their freedom to practice as they wished would be stifled by joining a bigger group.
When the practice opened, I called to congratulate the young doctors on their new business. However, the voices on the other end of the conversation sounded far from celebratory. They were in trouble, they explained. They'd committed to a lease on a beautiful office in a prime Santa Monica location and had taken on heavy debt to pay for state-of-the-art equipment. In addition, each doctor had his or her own student debts to pay off. All of these obligations would have been manageable, they said, with a steady flow of patients. But the patients weren't coming. Their city, Santa Monica, had more than its share of doctors, and my former students were realizing that they had entered a very competitive business world, one that their medical training hadn't prepared them for. Although they were bright, focused, and creative, they were also terrified of losing everything.
Sensing their distress, business consultants were knocking on the practice door, offering them assistance and assurances of future prosperity—at a steep price. The doctors were trying to figure out where to get the money to hire one of these consultants, or maybe a public-relations expert. One physician partner, with strain cracking her voice, was arguing to take on more debt. "If we want to win big," she insisted, "we have to play big. We need something bold and innovative to drive patients to our doors." Yet she, like the others, was unable to come up with a specific idea that might work.
I sympathized. These were good, caring doctors who could bring excellent care to their community. I wanted them to feel hopeful and creative again. But the one thing I didn't want them to do was to try to innovate their way out of the problem.
INNOVATION WORKS, EXCEPT WHEN IT DOESN'T
Why not? What's wrong with innovation?
First, here's a definition. Sometimes the word innovation is used to refer to a new idea or a clever solution, but in this book I'll adhere to the meaning that's taught in business schools. There, innovation means change, but not just any kind of change; innovation is a dramatic, sweeping change, one that's usually undertaken in a short amount of time. Innovation can be a clearly positive, exciting change, such as the Apple computer's marriage of scientific function and elegant design. Or innovation can be a much more difficult change, like an austerity program that lays off thousands of workers.
Other examples of innovation include:
Changing the focus of your organization.
Adapting a never-before-used technology.
Hiring all new department heads.
Merging with another company.
Transforming the company's image.
When innovation goes well, the result is new products, creative solutions to old problems, and vigorous organizations. And it's fast! If you know you can you achieve a goal quickly, why wait a minute longer than you have to?
The problem isn't with innovation itself. It's with our single-minded approach to innovation. When we believe that radical change—the fast track—is the only path to survival, growth, and ingenuity, we lose some of our effectiveness. If we think that wrenching change is the sole solution to problems, well ... we tend to let those problems go for a long time. A major overhaul can feel too hard, too painful, and too time-consuming to manage, especially when we have so many other things to do. And so the problem grows. When the problem is too big to ignore, we finally decide to do something about it ... and charge fiercely toward a solution. We say, "Let's turn this culture around!" Or "We're going to do the impossible around here!" If we succeed, that's terrific.
But when change tears through an organization, managers and staff may not feel as invigorated as you'd like them to. They often freeze up or feel overwhelmed. That's a big problem because radical change usually involves radical risk: a huge investment of money, time, people, or goodwill. When radical change fails, it can take down an entire department or even a whole organization. The difficulty of sustaining an innovative approach to change is the story of
Excerpted from THE SPIRIT OF KAIZEN by Robert Maurer. Copyright © 2013 by Robert Maurer. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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