Kaizen – The Meaning and Power of Change

canstockphoto7632235TLDR – Kaizen

What is it?

“Kaizen” is made up of two Chinese characters: 改 kai = “change” + 善 zen = “good” – So kaizen translates literally as “good change” – i.e, improvement, betterment, or refinement. It has been colloquialized in today’s business parlance to add the concepts of “continuous” and “incremental.”  In the context of software development, kaizen refers to the philosophy that focuses upon the continuous, incremental improvement of working practices. Kaizen is an integral piece of the kanban methodology.

A common western philosophy may be summarized as, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  The Kaizen philosophy, on the other hand, is to “do it better, make it better, improve it even if it isn’t broken, because if we don’t, we can’t compete with those who do.” Kaizen suggestions are not limited to a specific area such as engineering, nor do they come from specific roles within an organization. Kaizen means that ideas for change for good can and should come from anyone and be directed anywhere that improvements can be made.

Kaizen is a process that:

  • Helps people learn how to identify and eliminate waste in processes and practices
  • Generates many small improvements that compound to make big differences
  • The “whole family” can play:

So how does it work? Where to begin?

Kaizen involves everyone in the organization – Engineering, Design, Customer Service, Marketing, Business Management, Facilities. Everyone. You. Me.

The collective pursuit of continuous improvement is powerful – it gives an organization the ability to move toward a new desired state through often unclear and unpredictable territory by being sensitive to and responding to actual conditions on the ground.

There are perhaps only three things we can and need to know with certainty: where we are (Current Condition), where we want to be (Target Condition), and by what means we should try to maneuver the unclear territory between the two. Uncertainty is normal — the actual path cannot always be accurately predicted.

A daily practice

It is far better for an organization to regularly have a large group of people, systematically, and methodically, making many small improvements every day rather than a small group doing periodic big projects and events. Our competitiveness, ability to adapt, and culture arise from the routines and habits by which each one of us conducts ourselves every day.

Start / Stop / Continue

“Start / Stop / Continue” is a method of considering processes and practices, identifying what is working well, what is not, and what are candidates for change.

Start = these are ideas/items that:

  • We are not doing, but probably should be
  • May or may not have come up before
  • Address new situations or factors that may not have existed at the beginning of a project or task
  • Are small, incremental steps that will let us learn along the way, make adjustments, and discover the path to where we want to be

Stop = ideas/items that:

  • Are not working for you and/or the team
  • Are not having the desired outcome
  • May be impractical
  • You / the team just plain dislikes

Continue = ideas/items that:

  • Are working well and you / the team wants to keep
  • You/them team likes and thinks are successful
  • May be pieces of an overall process that you / team wants to “stop” – but don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Five Questions

The following sequence of five questions is a device to provide a routine and mental pattern for approaching any process improvement or iteration (From The Toyota Kata):

  1. What is the target condition? (The challenge)
  2. What is the actual condition now? i.e., what is the current problem we are trying to solve? (A 5-Why approach can help)
  3. What obstacles are now preventing us from reaching the target condition? Which one are we addressing now?
  4. What is our next step? (Start of next PDCA cycle)
  5. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

Despite what the words “problem solving” might lead us to think, the primary focus in problem-solving (a foundational exercise in continuous improvement) is not solutions, but understanding the current situation so deeply, firsthand, that the right solution becomes obvious and practically falls in our lap. Most of the effort of problem-solving is placed in grasping the situation— deeply understanding the conditions that led to the problem instead of hunting for solutions.


  • After a sprint, a project, or an “event” the team participates in a discussion to identify
    • what went well (continue these)
    • what didn’t go well (stop doing these)
    • and candidates for change (start doing these)
  • These discussions result in kaizen

For more about retrospectives click here.

Putting Ideas into Practice

It is one thing to generate good change ideas. But they only matter if they are implemented.

  • If the number of “candidates for good change” is many, pick a subset. Start there.
  • Some ideas that emerge from this framework you might be able to implement straight away. Go for it.
  • Some might require a combination of starts, stops, and continues
  • Others might need buy-in from a team, or help from others to implement, or a “green light” from leadership


Lessons learned are best shared. Other teams might be having the same issues or similar themes. (Why reinvent the wheel?) Your “continue” might be another team’s “start”… Maybe write about it in a blog post.

Follow Up

Last – and where it is all too easy to fail – follow up. Once a change has been implemented, check-in 1, 3 or 6 months later to see if things have taken hold.

And maybe there’s more good change to be made…

Read More


  1. Ashley Wiberg

    This is hilarious because I have ADHD and I do this naturally; it’s odd to me that neurotypicals have to literally design a process to get employees to do things that people with ADHD do ALL DAY EVERY DAY. I think about new and better ways to do things everyday; I ask questions, I think about why things are not working on a larger scale i.e. culture, environment, economic climate, psychology, etc., while simataneously thinking about why things do not work on a smaller scale i.e. company culture, employees, management, etc. I literally can not stop thinking about these things. I literally can not stop thinking!

    I also have a hard time working within a system that is a waste of time when I know there is a better, faster, cheaper way. That being said, if you’re younger, a new employee, a female or POC, managers will typically take your ideas and enthusiasm as an insult. So we just sit back and watch the shit show.

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