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Improvement - The 7 I’s of Kaisen – Involve

“Communication here is rubbish!” Everyone in the meeting froze momentarily in time. Breath was held. How was Clive, the headteacher, going to react? Lonnie was renowned for her forthright nature, but expressing her view confrontationally in public, how was Clive going to take it? Clive paused. Staff waited, noting his ‘face of reflection’.

Staff couldn’t see what was going on in his head, but Clive knew everyone was looking at him in this moment. Sure, it was a public challenge from Lonnie, but Clive had heard this a number of times in one to ones and he was now moving a way from the position of ‘the amount of times I have heard ‘communication is not good’ I would be millionaire’. It is maybe time to grab this communication bull by the horns and give it a good wrestle.

Slowly and thoughtfully, Clive responded. “Ok. If you think it is rubbish, I would like you to be the teacher representative for your phase in the school on a working group I am going to pull together. I kind of ‘council of war’ to tackle this issue once and for all. I will send a memo out to all staff tomorrow asking for one volunteer from each staff type, so we have every perspective represented. We will then get everything out on the table and turn this around.” Communication needed to improve and unbeknown to Clive he had instituted the first of 7I’s of Kaizen, the Japanese approach to improvement. Whatever he had done unknowingly, he had certainly taken the wind out of Lonnie’s sails and in that moment he began the journey of turning animosity into allegiance. Lonnie was taken aback but quickly realised that she needed to step into the space of a working group and nodded. “I will,” she said.

Kaizen is the Japanese approach to improvement and has engaging the team as a key part of it. Kaizen is a compound of two words, 'Kai' 改, meaning 'change,' and the second 'zen' 善, meaning 'good’. Over time, one of its key principles of ‘continuous improvement’ has become synonymous with this ‘good change’. Kaizen’s origins were in post-World War II Japan where groups of workers focused on preventing defects at Toyota. It has ten key principles and as I have explored Kaizen, the seven steps to implement this approach can be explained in 7I’s.

  • Involve employees

  • Identify Problems

  • Invent a solution

  • Interrogate (test) the solution

  • Investigate the results

  • Implement (standardise & adopt)

  • Iterate (Repeat the cycle)

Over the next four weeks we are going to explore these and how they can bring improvement in our organisations and even in ourselves.

Principles of involvement

It was a large table, well ten library tables pushed together actually. There were too many people really based on group dynamics, but Clive knew gathering opinion from each department was key to the success of this group. Clive outlined the culture that the meetings would operate under. This was to be a place where kind honesty had to be on the table. They had to share openly without fear of consequence, and it was to be done respectfully and in a way that lifted others up to better things and not made people feel small. Everyone would be encouraged to contribute. The first step was to get the issues out on the table and so he tasked them in small groups with large post it notes to list the issues. The board quickly filled up.

Two of Kaizen’s ten principles relate to the principles of involvement that are in this approach around the library tables.

· Create an environment in which everyone feels empowered to contribute.

· Collect information and opinions from multiple people.

Culture to collect.

If we want people to contribute to improvement, we need to create a culture that fosters engagement. Kaizen principles have at the heart of them that people are empowered to share a perspective. I think empowerment comes from inspiring and equipping people. In order to do that, we need to provide:

  • Clarity on what our aim is

  • Creating a safe space to express a view honestly.

  • Create a listening culture. This is modelled by the leader.

  • Equipping people with resources and skills to manage sharing positively.


Our social media and perspectives can be filled with content from our own echo chamber. It is so easy to listen to the voice that supports our thinking. When we take a Kaizen approach to improvement, it is importance to ensure we have a range of perspectives. The working group made from each department representative means that there is a full 360-degree perspective. You also need to make sure that you have flag wavers and pitchfork holders. You want fans with supportive ideas, and you want critical feedback that cuts to the chase.

Sitting around that library table talking about communication, it was important that there was ‘Equality not dominance’. Everyone’s perspective is equal and needs to be heard. Thinking partners and sharing ideas, post it notes, and directly asking the introvert thinker for their perspective later on in the meeting, ensures that you get the breadth of perspective. It’s also key to get both ‘information and opinion. Facts and feelings’ Noting how people are feelings about an issue can be as useful as the practical facts, even if you don’t agree with a perspective. Their reality is reality. It all helps you to discover the root of the issue. (But more of that in future blogs.)

You don’t have to gather everyone in a room. You can involve people in one to ones gaining perspectives. Although listening to each other’s perspectives can grow understanding. As we explored communication, for others to hear of the impact of their lack of communication, it grew empathy and sped up engagement.

If you are looking at self-improvement, within coaching, I encourage my coachees to consider perspectives. I sometimes ask people to pretend they are looking at an issue from another person’s ‘bodycam’. What is their perspective? This can enlighten you. If you are looking at your own issue getting a perceived external view on the impact of your behaviour can again gain perspective and understanding.

Uninterrupted thinking time

Chairing a group to gain perspectives has a risk of being like herding cats. Nancy Kline, in her brilliant book ‘Time to Think’, outlines that when running meetings of the importance of time to think. She explains that interruptions or expected interruptions can hinder people’s quality thinking and cause them to snatch at the time they have. By establishing uninterrupted 3 minutes for the speaker, it allows them to think freely. Using this principle of establishing thinking time in improvement working groups enables people to feel safe, think at their best, and generate respect.

Next steps

So, step into Kaizen improvement this week. Consider who you could ask for a perspective? Create a safe space to listen to them without interrupting. See what impact that has on your improvement.

If you would like help to improve things, contact us at Everyday Leader. We can empower you to gain clarity with some simple questions to help you understand and manage it better. Give us a call at 01449 710438 or email if you would like us to help you explore this and empower you.


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