How the Kaizen mindset fosters smart contrarians on your IT team

Here's how Kaizen methodologies can help foster innovative problem-solving and team creativity
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digital transformation reality check

“That’s how we’ve always done it.”

This is perhaps the most dangerous phrase in IT. Just because a particular process has worked well in the past doesn’t mean your team should be locked in for the long term.

Most successful organizations today cultivate smart contrarians – employees who think differently, create freely, and bring alternative ideas to the table. Smart leaders know that conventional thinking leads to conventional ideas, while unconventional thinking leads to innovation. They also know that cultivating specific attitudes and behaviors will almost always attract better talent, lead to improved team output, and move a company beyond what was thought possible.

Company culture plays a significant role in how employees think about their work. If their ideas are constantly put down, they will leave or begrudgingly learn to comply in an environment where their best work will likely never be seen. If innovation is important to your company’s growth, nothing will help you more than creating a culture that encourages out-of-the-box thinking and embraces new ideas.

[ Also read How to be a smart contrarian in IT. ]

Some companies (including mine) encourage associates to be smart contrarians by adopting the Kaizen mindset. It’s an intentional method that motivates and rewards thinking beyond the task at hand to find better ways to solve complex technology challenges and deliver new business value to clients.

What is the Kaizen method?

The Kaizen method creates continuous improvements by implementing constant positive changes. Over time, these small, gradual advances can produce significant results. It has long been a key principle of lean manufacturing methods.

In English, “kaizen” means change for the better (kai = change, zen = good). The philosophy was first introduced at Toyota in Japan after World War II. The car manufacturer formed quality circles in its production process, and teams met regularly to identify and review work-related problems, analyze situations, and suggest improvements.

Many organizations adopt the Kaizen approach to support a culture of continuous learning, integration, and innovation. Below are three ways Kaizen-inspired ways to help team members become smart contrarians.

1. Reactive Kaizen

This approach seeks to overcome initial problems identified in an IT project or software development, such as defect targets not being met or inefficiencies in cycle time.

For example, by applying Kaizen principles, an associate at my company identified that the standard design brief used to launch new products or features was too complex for clients. As a result of this discovery, our team developed an innovative prototyping tool that enables software engineers to explain the end-to-end design process more simply.

The tool proved to be valuable, boosting solution design signoffs to 100 percent, helping to reduce development times by 40 percent, and identifying security requirements upfront. We now use the tool for most client engagements and internal projects.

2. Proactive Kaizen

This model looks for ways to improve standard performance, such as exceeding uptime metrics or proactively improving skills in anticipation of DevOps requirements.

By applying the Kaizen proactive model, we recently initiated an innovative process to improve the billing rate for a key client by implementing agile methodologies and conducting regular risk assessments for delivery timelines. As part of the discovery, the developers uncovered a way to eliminate the need for a third-party software solution to decrypt/encrypt credit card payments, which resulted in significant cost savings. We also implemented a dashboard for the client to monitor and analyze shipment data, which enabled the client to apply for additional tax waivers from foreign governments through a settlement process.

3. Innovative Kaizen

As the name suggests, this is the conceptualization and implementation of creative ideas such as developing a new solution or service offering, applying new tools and technologies, and creating a new work product.

For example, one of our team members analyzed a client’s process to allocate large orders for shipping via trucks. He realized there was an opportunity to break up order quantities more accurately into purchase orders based on the actual capacity of the trucks to hold skids of product. The existing process was less accurate, resulting in wasted time and human resources in the warehouse and purchasing department. The new solution increased the client’s efficiency metric by 50 percent.

By infusing “there may be a better way” into corporate culture, IT leaders can inspire associates to challenge the status quo.

Keeping it going

By infusing “there may be a better way” into corporate culture, IT leaders can inspire associates to challenge the status quo. The result is an IT organization that is proactive about making positive changes without fear of rubbing anyone the wrong way.

A key to success is ensuring that all employees have access to a standardized set of Kaizen processes, templates, tools, and metrics to simplify the process of implementing reactive, proactive, and innovative Kaizen models. It’s also important to track and measure the effect these discoveries have on overall effectiveness, reward associates for their findings, and recognize smart contrarians every quarter.

Do the leaders at your company have long-term goals for continuous improvement and transformation? If so, then your company may be ready to embrace the Kaizen culture to develop smart contrarians.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Sarma Manthravadi is the senior vice president of operations at SenecaGlobal, where he manages internal service operations in Hyderabad, India, which include human resources, training, administration, internal IT services, quality, and information security. Mr.