Hal R. Varian, professor of business, economics and information management at the University of California, Berkeley explains “Kaizen, the practice of continuous improvement,” in today’s NYT.
Kaizen doesn’t just mean a business should keep trying new things. Rather, it refers to a disciplined process of systematic exploration, controlled experimentation and then painstaking adoption of the new procedures.
The most successful online businesses are built on kaizen, though few of those who carry out the testing would recognize the term, since many of those who created these online businesses were in grade school in the 1980s.
The online world is never static. There is a constant flow of new users, new products and new technologies. Being able to figure out quickly what works and what doesn’t can mean the difference between survival and extinction.
Aside from the “painstaking adoption of the new procedures“ part, Kaizen has the right idea: Inject every aspect of your business with purposeful evolution. To actually make it work in today’s world though, the adoption portion should be fluid and painless.
Kaizen also needs to completely drop the word “procedure” from its vernacular and find something a little less rigid. Getting bogged-down with ever-changing procedures and associated bureaucracies end up being frustrating, confusing, and will work against a process that favors and encourages change. In today’s world, flexibility of execution is more vital than ever to a rapid evolutionary process. A business must be able to anticipate, react and adapt to changes in its environment (consumer tastes, emerging technologies, evolving design) quickly and painlessly. I am not advocating the elimination of procedures altogether, but merely suggesting that they should exist more as a foundation and backdrop for most operational and tactical functions within a company rather than being front-and-center.
IDEO-style rapid ideation/prototyping/testing/production is a great example of how some of Kaizen’s key principles can be adapted to an accelerated product development/upgrade cycle. The underlying system is in place, but while the main lines of the product development process rarely change, flexibility of execution is at the core of its effectiveness. Welcome to the next step in Kaizen’s evolution.
If you happen to be in the business of actually making widgets, this puts a lot of pressure on manufacturing and quality control operations – which tend to favor tried-and-true procedures and safe A-Z systems to an ever changing landscape – but that’s just part of the challenge if you want to play with the big boys (and girls). If not, flexibility of execution tends to be a lot easier to get comfortable with.
Remember that in most cases, improving any business function isn’t necessarily about making things better or faster or easier, but simpler. Focus on making things more simple (for you, your vendors, your customers, etc.) and better, faster and easier will happen on their own.
Have a great Thursday, everyone. (Hey, I got the day right today. Maybe I haven’t been hitting the sauce after all.)