Kaizen: How to Create a Culture of Innovation and Fearlessness

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By John J. Murphy, guest contributor

In 2013 I wrote a book titled, Zentrepreneur: Get Out of the Way and Lead; Create A Culture of Innovation and Fearlessness. Originally, the book was intended to help aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs “do good” for the world. In other words, turn “healthy, positive thinking” (Zen) into constructive actions and results (Entrepreneurship).

You can probably tell by the title that this is not one of your more typical leadership books. Who writes about Zen in the fast-paced, competitive business world? We need to be aggressive and fight to get ahead, right? We’ve got fierce competition surrounding us like sharks. Who has time for mindfulness and inner peace when the world seems to be coming apart at the seams?

"Good Change"

With serious respect for assertion, rigor and healthy competition, Zentrepreneur offers leaders helpful guidance and insight on the mindful practice of kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese word that translates into “good change” with an emphasis on continuous improvement. It combines two words, Kai (to take apart and make new) and Zen (think positive with harmony, balance, grace and flow) into a very powerful and mindful leadership practice.

Kaizen Events are now common practice among many leading organizations seeking to bring more creativity, harmony, innovation and fearlessness into their work cultures. A typical event involves:

  • Identifying a target area (key process or value stream) to improve
  • Collecting factual data on the current state (including mapping the process)
  • Identifying UDE’s (undesirable effects),
  • Conducting root cause analysis on why we are experiencing these undesirable outcomes
  • Making “good change” to improve the process flow.

All of this is done in a matter of days (typically 3-5), not weeks and months.

Kaizen as a practice demonstrates authentic culture change in real time. We behave differently right from the start using a different approach to problem-solving with different expectations. We don’t meet to discuss change. We come together to make change. Frequently, participants tell me things like, “We have been struggling with this problem for years and now we just fixed it in a week!”

What I find most exciting about Kaizen Events is that we are not just changing policies, processes and procedures. We are changing minds. What I observe as skepticism, fear and doubt on Monday of an event morphs into triumph, excitement, accomplishment and pride by Friday. By using a trusted model for team alignment, understanding, innovation and execution, the most resistant skeptics often admit, “Wow, this experience made a believer out of me.”

One of the tools we use in Kaizen is contemplation. Closely related to meditation, contemplation examines the world without resistance, criticism and judgement. To paraphrase the mystic Rumi, “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” When we contemplate, we simply ask deep questions that open the mind and allow deeper understanding beyond the idea of right and wrong (dualistic, ego thinking). We seek to understand the situation before we try to change it. This involves focusing attention on what matters most, gathering factual data on the situation, digging deep to find root causes, and opening the mind and intuition to find creative alternatives.  

Nine Questions to Contemplate:

To facilitate contemplation, the book Zentrepreneur is organized into nine chapters, each titled with a question. Here are the questions. Take a moment as you read each one to reflect on it. What does it suggest for you?

  1. What if?” What if we try something different? What if we give this radical idea a chance? What if we stop doing this unnecessary step? What if we open our minds and hearts and intuitions and playfully explore the abundant opportunities around us?  
  2. Why?” Why do this? What value does it add? Why is this important? What difference would it make?
  3. Why not?” Consider the risks. What could go wrong? What are the forces against this idea?
  4. Who?” Who can help us with this idea? Who knows how to do it? What competencies do we need on the team? Who is doing it well? Who can we benchmark and learn from?
  5. How?” How will we do this? Knowing what we want is not the same as knowing how to do it. We need to know how. We need to define how with a plan.
  6. When?” Timing can be everything. Plan carefully and intelligently – What, why, who, how and when. When will we do this? Be specific. Define the ideal launch cycle. And then ask yourself, why not now?
  7. “Yeah, but?” Anticipate resistance and plan around it. You will likely hear things like “Yeah, but this is not a good time,” or “Yeah, but you need more experience or education,” or “Yeah, but we don’t have the money right now.” Expect some degree of conflict and plan ahead with countermeasures to eliminate the obstacles. 
  8. So, what? You may have accomplished a lot, with many trophies in your case. This can be impressive, but it is history. Don’t rest on your laurels. No one wants a 1999 flip phone anymore. Investors want to know what is next. Where are you going? Let go of the past and focus on something exciting in the future.
  9. Now what?” Look ahead with an open, inquisitive, intuitive mind. Expect challenges and changes. Learn to pivot. Not everything will go as planned. Learn to adapt and weave your way around the countless obstacles that will surface. Get used to wondering, “Now what?” Learn to be resilient!

A “Zentrepreneur” is a mindful leader, converting “good ideas” into great results. I believe there is a Zentrepreneur in all of us – a heartfelt need to do something positive in the world. When we tap into this energy and unleash it, we feel inspired and free. These nine questions, along with many more that stem from them, will guide you on your journey. Use them to translate contemplation into positive action and results. A great idea means nothing until it is acted upon.

The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for being.” – Albert Einstein 

John J. Murphy is an award-winning author and the Founder (1988) and CEO of Venture Management Consultants, Inc., a firm specializing in transformational culture change, mindful leadership, Operational Excellence, and high-performance teamwork. Visit his website www.johnjmurphy.org for more information. 

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Great recommendations: 

Why don’t we start every day a new as zenpreneurs like children do

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