by Jason Thomas
Image by Juha Nieminen
Click to view A Japanese management strategy called Kaizen roughly translates to “continuous slow improvement.” In the corporate world, it’s an efficiency and defect-proofing system often used on factory floors. But Kaizen emphasizes the well-being of the employee, working smarter, not harder and developing best practices so that workers don’t have to think. As such, Kaizen is an ideal approach to improve one’s personal workflow.
Getting Things Done with Kaizen
Getting Things Done methods work well within the practice of Kaizen. Kaizen would be the overall strategy, and GTD a collection of tactics for process improvement. To apply GTD in a Kaizen way, you might choose a few related ideas from GTD that will help you immediately in areas where you need the most work. Then you’d implement one tactic every week for a month. You’d work on that one tactic— 43 folders, say— for a week, consciously using it and thinking about it. After a week, you’d have it down to the point where you don’t have to think about it anymore. The next week, you’d move on to the next device while continuing to use the one you just mastered.
That way, you’re continually improving your process, painlessly, without having to interrupt much of your present workflow or take anything new by storm. There’s the thing with Kaizen: you have to stick to it. It doesn’t necessarily require a huge amount of discipline front loaded, but you have to hold on to each small gain you make. Since each step is a small increment, that’s easy enough to do.
Kaizen in practice
To start your own personal Kaizen, sit down and make a list of the areas you want to improve. If you’re not sure where you can make your day more efficient, try timing your activities during a representative day. You may be surprised at the result — you might be wasting a great deal of time in places that you don’t expect. Check out Gina’s previously-featured Time Map for a good way to track where your day goes.
Say you find three areas you can streamline: you spend a lot of time processing email, taking phone calls interspersed throughout the day, and writing reports.
Say that email is the single greatest source of lost time, disorganization and thrash. You lose them. You forget to respond to them. Every time you read one or respond to one, you need several minutes to find where you were in the report that you were writing.
So you should deal with the email problem first. It’s fairly easy to tackle, and that’s another idea of Kaizen: to take on the low-hanging fruit first. Then you’re getting tangible benefits right away that will stand you in good stead while you conquer the more difficult problems later on.
You might introduce a folder flow. You’re all email wizards by now, so this is just an example. You might have an inbox and an urgent box. You set up a filter so that all email marked urgent go into the urgent box, and all others sit in the inbox. You set aside five minutes every hour, right before you refill your coffee cup, to deal with the urgent items as quickly as possible— you want that coffee, right? And twice, right before lunch and before you leave for the day, you clear out the inbox, reading and dealing with all items that weren’t marked urgent. Easy and simple, with process improvements and thinking built in.
Kaizen in principle
You want to externalize thinking and book-keeping as much as possible, and you also want them to happen “for free” as much as possible, or as artifacts of other tasks. You also want to build in error-proofing as much as possible. The “urgent” filter is an example: by clearing the “urgent” box, you know that you haven’t missed any urgent items. By chunking it together into a small piece of time at the end of every hour, you’re cutting down on thrash time, the reorganizing overhead that happens at the beginning and end of every task when you’re trying to reorient your brain.
Kaizen also focuses on eliminating waste. On the factory floor, this means wasted movement. Setting up tool stations so that everything is within arm’s reach is an easy way of cutting out wasted steps, and iterated over the course of a day, or a month, for two hundred workers, this means greatly increased productivity. It also means less wear and tear for the workers themselves, and that’s good for everyone.
In the office environment, “waste” might refer to wasted brain time. Hemming and hawing to think of what to do with a given email. Having to look up from your report every five minutes to answer an “urgent” email that ends up having to do with someone needing to find a home for his kitty-cat. Across the course of a day, these little interruptions add up.
Standardization is another Kaizen principle. With standardization, you think about what “best practices” are, and you do so in advance. Then you externalize those best practices as much as possible, and you work those practices so that they become automatic. When things get hectic, when you have ten things to get done before tea and they’re shelling the trench lines for the third time today, you can just fall back on your habits and follow the procedures that you decided upon during a calmer time.
I’ve been adopting one new practice every month. As I got more and more freelance writing assignments, I had to set up a folder pipeline to keep track of that. Folder pipelines include error proofing and memory aids built in so that you don’t need to think about them, and if you perform the menial Tetris tasks of moving things from folder to folder as required, they don’t take much thought at all. Seconds per day, really. Compare that to time spent looking for documents, deciding if the documents are the right one and wondering whether you already pitched a story to a given editor.
A few months back, I started using GTDTiddlyWiki. It’s packed with features, and I’ve found a number of them that I like very well— really, it’s just a canvas on which you can design your own process improvements and workflows. I store lots of data there. I back it up by sending it to my Gmail account. I’m continually tearing apart my system of hyperlinks and reconfiguring them in ways that make more sense, are simpler and easier. It took some time getting used to it, but that single, free HTML document ended up being my killer app, and I would miss it terribly. Now I use it every day, and using it is unconscious. I don’t have to think about what I’m going to do with a phone number or a contact name. I don’t need to wonder where I wrote that little idea. All that thinking is inbuilt.
Another month, I started using a Hipster PDA. It was very quick to get used to. Kind of like crack in that way. It also solved numerous problems related to forgetfulness, lost slips of paper and clutter.
Kaizen for a better way of life
Kaizen is a system for introducing process improvements. But the most important thing is to use these systems to make your life easier. You can use them to pump out more work, and that’s a good thing, but remember that the whole purpose is so that you don’t have to work those twelve-hour Fridays.
Organization systems are there to remove hair-tearing and nail-biting and rushed deadlines. They don’t have to become a way of life, like that guy sitting next to you who sanitizes his own phone handset with industrial disinfectant before and after he’s using it, the one who has different color-coded file totes for each day of the week. He worships that stuff. Those totes aren’t just totes, they’re totems. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Make your improvements small and gentle and you’ll stick with them.
Jason Thomas is a writer and computer professional living in the Twin Cities.