Fire Alarm

Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning good change. Change in a dynamic business environment has become an accepted norm. Organizations must adapt or lose relevancy. The concept of kaizen has been adopted within the information technology industry as part of core management practices. In business terms, kaizen has been defined as continuous incremental change. You need energy to make change occur, in many cases, a sense of urgency is the mechanism used to generate the energy to drive continuous change.

John Kotter, author of Leading Change and the eight-step model of change, suggests that without a sense of urgency people don’t give the needed push of hard work to make change happen. Urgency begins by providing a focus that helps people to first become aware of the need for change and then pay attention to the need and the factors causing the need by piercing through the noise. (See the awareness, attention, action model). The energy a sense of urgency injects into the process is needed make the step from paying attention to taking to break through complacency and disrupt the status quo.

The need for urgency in the equation for change can lead to problems. The first is the potential for confusing importance with urgency. In a perfect world, we would only want to react to what is both important and urgent. The second problem area is that of manufactured/false urgency. Both problematic scenarios lead to the sapping of the organization’s energy in the long term, which makes it more difficult to recognize and react when real change is needed. If further there is an over reliance on a manufactured or a false sense of urgency the focus becomes short-term rather than strategic.

My first job out of university was as a statistical analyst/sales forecaster for a woman’s garment manufacturer. We had six “seasons” or product line offerings every year. Quotas were set for the sales force (incrementally bigger than last year). The sales management team for regional sales managers to the national sales manager provided constant “motivation” to the sales force. Motivation always included the dire consequences of missing the quota. There was always a sense of urgency, which drove action, including account prospecting (good behavior) and order padding (bad behavior). The manufactured urgency generated both good and bad change, and when things were going well it was pretty easy to sort those out. However, the business cycle has never been repealed and when an economic downturn occurred it was difficult to differentiate the real urgency. Therefore the organization did not make strategic changes quickly enough. A 80 year old firm with 750 million dollars in sales failed nearly overnight.

Urgency can become a narcotic that makes the need real change harder to recognize and harder to generate. Signs of an over reliance on urgency can include:

  • People that are “too busy” to do the right thing,
  • Generating highly crafted PowerPoint pitches for even small changes,
  • Continually chasing a new silver bullet before the last has been evaluated.

The goal of kaizen is to continually improve the whole organization. The whole organization includes empowering everyone from development and operational personnel to all layers of management to recognize and make change. Motivation is needed to evoke good change, however we need to be careful that motivation does not translate to a need to generate a false sense of urgency.