«Kaizen – The Key to Japan's Competitive Success», by Masaaki Imai, (Bookreview)

Kaizen as fertilizer for green agile meadows

A book review of «Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success» from Masaaki Imai, published by the Kaizen Institute 1986.

Of historic interest only?

The book was first published in 1986, and seems therefore a little bit dated.

It is, especially in view of the fact that it is influenced by the industrial background of Toyota’s TQM and deals with actual workplaces in workshops and with production machines in a factory.

At first glance, one might even think that it is no longer applicable at all to our now highly digitalized working worlds. In particular, one might assume that it is simply obsolete due to agile approaches, which also provide for incremental planning, continuous improvement, customer orientation, rapid troubleshooting in a more contemporary digital context.

But this is not the case.

Kaizen to overcome weaknesses of agile approaches

In contrast to agile methods, it is particularly apparent that these actually lack the sophisticated methods for progress control, resource management and quality measurement to a large extent.

Typical agile tools like the backlog, story points, a burndown chart are quite nice, but at least concepts like planning poker and velocity are strangely superficial and lack effective resultorientation compared to the lean-based tools presented in this book alone in the appendix, especially with regard to resulting quality as the main goal in Kaizen.

Furthermore, it is noticeable that concepts such as Scrum do provide for retrospectives in order to reflect on one’s own working methods and to continuously improve the processes. However, these also fall conspicuously short compared to the ideas of comprehensive lean management and an integrative and active problem-solving culture such as Kaizen: Focusing on training, quality and customer orientation together are absolutely central to the entire company there as a corporate culture.

Kaizen cannot be superficially inserted into conventional hierarchically encrusted companies, but, like many agile approaches that focus only on individual buzzwords, must first be jointly unfolded from within.

The book is therefore up to date with its concepts, a cause-and-effect diagram or root cause analysis alone are excellent tools, for example, to get muddled Agile projects back on track.

Kaizen as fertilizer for green agile meadows

However, with its juxtaposition of innovation and kaizen (in table 2.1), it also makes clear that there are actually two different paradigms behind it: The idea of collaborative, fun-unspectacular continuous improvement of something existing and that of daring disruptive redesign based on ingenious individual ideas.

The latter approach is favored by the assumption that software projects, unlike industrial or construction projects, can always be set up «agile» i.e. without any preconditions. There is a lot to be said for this assumption, but only as long until the agile startup resulted in a certain code base or succeeded in creating the minimum viable product.

At this moment at the latest, one must also deal with historical dependencies and constraints: The further development progresses, the more one must reckon with dependencies and restrictions that make a kaizen approach appear advantageous or even unavoidable, at least if one continues to desire the desired value-creating moments of success as at the beginning.

Thus, it could be that kaizen is better suited for slightly more advanced agile projects, which have «survived» their first minimum viable product and aim to get solid routines, higher robustness and security and sustainable customer attraction.

The quality aspect that Kaizen and Lean convey, which focuses more on value creation and sustainability and less on velocity than feature realization records. however, would in many cases unreservedly and always do the agile approach good. Emphasizing a positive culture of error and valuing shared steady goal orientation definitely.

If kaizen has aroused your interest, Masaaki Imai is in any case the right author, who has published further and also more recent publications on the subject.