How Kaizen Events can Foster Team Presence and Innovation

BL00 - Cultivating Mindfulness in the Workplace-High-Quality

By John J. Murphy

One practical definition of leadership is going first. Leading the way. Walking the talk. I like this definition because it challenges leaders to be genuine and authentic, to lead by example. This is especially important when bringing mindfulness into a corporate culture. You will have a lot of skeptics and doubters. To many people, the idea of mindfulness brings images of yogis sitting on a mountaintop, chanting mantras. Who has time for this? We have deadlines to meet! How can this possibly help?  

Leaders who successfully bring mindfulness into the workplace do not force it. We offer it. We do not push. We pull, using demonstration and example to generate curiosity and intrigue. When employees witness a positive change in a leader’s attitude, perspective, and behavior – more patience, empathy, compassion, and calm - many of them want to know what is happening and how. What has gotten into the boss? He seems more optimistic, confident, and relaxed. These are stressful times. How does she manage this chaos with such poise and grace? 

When employees start contemplating these questions, their mind’s eye is opening. The student is becoming ready, and the lessons can now take hold. There is a positive exchange of energy taking place. It is the experience you may have had when certain people seem to “light up the room.” You cannot force this upon people. You simply need to be it and teach it by demonstration. To paraphrase Gandhi, “You have to be the change you want to see in the world.”

As a business consultant, I have no authority over the teams I lead when I go into a client organization to lead rapid change events, or Kaizen Events. No one reports to me. I cannot force anything. And because a kaizen event is quick (usually 3-5 days) and we are making significant, transformational changes to complex processes that some companies have struggled with for years, the pressure can be intense. Many team members wonder, how are we possibly going to get changes made in less than a week? How do I know this? They tell me, usually on day one of the event, with a sense of fear and trepidation. And then at the conclusion of the event, these same skeptics are celebrating like they just won the lottery. A successful kaizen event does not just change processes. It changes minds!

It may help to know that the Japanese word kaizen is two words put together – Kai and Zen. Kai means to take apart and make new. Zen means to think positive with harmony, balance, and grace. So, a loose translation of kaizen is “to make good, healthy change.” A kaizen event is to do it fast!

I use kaizen events frequently to lead by example and mindfully bring more harmony, balance, and “flow” into organizations. By flow, I mean information flow, product flow, inventory flow, cash flow, and creativity flow. These are important factors in any business, and kaizen is a powerful and practical way to lead culture change by demonstration and action. It engages employees immediately in something that matters to them – a frustrating or inefficient process – and it empowers them to make changes quickly. We do not make these changes to people. We make them with people. Many times, team members tell me that they now bring the practice home to mindfully make improvements in their personal lives. This is when you know the learning is sinking in and taking hold. 

When I facilitate kaizen events, I use a methodology called DMAIC. This practice grounds, focuses, and aligns the team on mission, and it guides them through an improvement process in a very mindful way. Here is how it works:

  • Define: Clearly define the current state and map it. How do we do what we do now? Be specific. What issues are we trying to solve?
  • Measure: Gather data. Prove there is a problem. Get the facts. Establish a baseline. For example, how many steps are in the process? How long does it take? How much of the time is value-added? What is considered undesirable? Where is there inefficiency and waste in the process?
  • Analyze: Identify the root causes of any undesirable effects. Why is this happening? What are the key leverage points? What immediate changes could make a huge difference? What are the risks of making these specific changes?
  • Improve: Make the “good changes.” Do it now. Be decisive. Take action.
  • Control: Establish measures, methods, policy, and governance to “hold the gains.”   

DMAIC gives teams a methodology to use that brings mindfulness into the workplace in a very businesslike way. We get “present” by carefully and mindfully examining the current state. Often, employees know their functions and roles within a value stream, but they have no idea how it works end-to-end. This methodology “opens their eyes” to the bigger picture and gives the team a “collective consciousness.” It pulls the team together. The same is true with facts and data. We do not know what we do not know. Often, people are forming opinions based on flawed assumptions and limiting beliefs without even knowing it. DMAIC brings a sense of truth and honesty to the change process. It is truly an “awakening” experience for many employees, including management. 

As a business mindfulness practice, I classify DMAIC as more contemplative and innovative than meditative. It goes beyond thought and acceptance to action and immediate application. Having said that, it challenges employees to be present, focused, and aware as they move through the process as a united team. It is structured, paced, and disciplined, challenging the team to work as one and synergize. 

Sometimes, I am asked during these events how I remain so calm and poised. After all, many times I am running these events in foreign cultures speaking different languages, working on processes I know little about. Yes, it can be a bit challenging. Therefore, a leader must be mindful, authentic, trusting, and patient to teach by example. We must demonstrate mindfulness in a practical, useful manner. People need to connect with it in an applicable way, not just a theoretical idea. When employees discover that there is no need to stress about challenging situations, and that there are solutions to every problem, they relax and gain confidence. They become more creative and playful - and less defensive. They lighten up, so to speak. And when a leader creates a culture where employees feel more alive and freer, fearless, and inspired, the leader has brought mindfulness into people’s lives without even calling it that.  

John J. Murphy is an author, speaker, entrepreneur, business consultant, and coach and has been for over 30 years. He has traveled as many as 51 weeks out of 52, teaching in dozens of countries around the world, with languages and cultures he knew little about.

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1 comment

LeeAnn Mallorie

I love this article John, it make so much sense to me. There is really no true understanding without deeper listening, and no innovation without taking or falling apart of the old. I'd love to connect and learn more about your process. 

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