Agile vs Kaizen, which one works better?

It is a fact that without teamwork, any business transformation fails. That’s true even for solopreneurs. If they don’t join efforts with service providers, partners and clients, they won’t grow. By now, almost everyone has heard about agile and kaizen teams. And the question that often arises is which one to use…

Whether you are just starting or transforming your business, you need a team to help you get to the next level. Moreover, the team members should ideally be from different areas or backgrounds. The reason is that you need different points of view to make some sound decisions (especially when you face a difficult choice). If you only gather people who specialize in 1 thing or think alike, you won’t develop creative solutions.

So, how do you approach teamwork? How do you pick up the correct strategy with so many buzzwords and opinions on what works and what doesn’t? And especially, how do you direct everybody’s efforts in the direction to achieve the goals? I will help you find the answer to this question and narrow down your choice to the two most effective methods.

Kaizen

Kaizen means “change for better” (in Japanese), and the Kaizen teams’ goal is to improve or change things that don’t work. Such a team should include members from different functions within the company. You can even invite outsiders, like suppliers or partners. The objective is to resolve a specific and identified issue.  

Kaizen teams usually work with Kaizen weeks, which means that the team’s objective must be resolved within one week. Therefore, you need two premises to be feasible: the goals should be concrete, and you have to empower the team members to make changes. 

For example, you’ve had complaints from your customers that your order placement is long and difficult to understand. It is a very specific issue. Get a team of people (3-8) from order reception, delivery/logistics, IT and sales and give them the goal to improve or scale the order placement process. Define the team leader. Allow them to take the week away from their work to dedicate themselves to this goal (find temporarily replacement). And especially empower them to analyze, propose, and execute actions to streamline the process with the company’s current resources.

Use the Kaizen week methodology:

  1. Monday: Analysis
  2. Tuesday: Ideas brainstorming and action plan for improvement or growth
  3. Wednesday: Implement the actions that are possible (usually 80%)
  4. Thursday: Run a test/pilot on the new way of working
  5. Friday: Repeat the test set up a follow-up plan for the outstanding actions. present results to the management

Kaizen weeks are impressive. They are also realistic. The key is defining a specific goal, putting together a cross-functional team, and delegating decision-making. Kaizen teams are great to work on improvements with the predictable outcome – that typically happens in discrete process industries and service providers.

 Agile teams

One big difference between agile and kaizen teams is that the agile team members stick together for longer. Their goal is usually of a more extensive scope, and they address changes and improvements with unpredictable solutions. Also, the team members have clearly defined roles and purposes. On the other hand, similarly to the Kaizen team, the agile team has to be independent in their decision making and decide how the group will work together.

Instead of planning the entire project upfront, the Agile team plan continuously throughout the project, making constant adjustments. As the processes or goals they address are innovative and can bring radical changes, they must be flexible. Also, the team can work on achieving the plan as long as they need until the result they set up upfront is completed. Then they move to the next project. 

Agile teams are great for IT environments and innovating processes where nothing is predictable. Let’s suppose you need to increase NPS within a specific target group. You could create an Agile team including a customer service representative, a sales manager, a market analyst, two developers and the CMO as the Product owner who oversees the “what” of the project. 

So if your scope is pre-defined, the processes you are looking to implement or change are stable and predictable – go for Kaizen teams methodology.

If your project is about innovation, where processes are chaotic, little planning can be done upfront – choose agile.

You can also combine both types of methodologies within the same company. For example, you can use several Kaizen teams to implement different action courses in a bigger-scope project and agile teams to execute assignments like OKR.

Tools that work well with both teams 
Gemba 

Gemba is a Japanese term meaning the actual place and encourages management to attend the site where the action is taking place, see what is happening in reality and not through reports and comments.

Kanban boards 

Kanban stands for “card”. Cards are tasks or actions, and they are moved from left to right. Kanban board is used to schedule and coordinate work progress. It has one fundamental ‘pull’ rule – you should not move cards into the DOING/WORK column if it contains too many cards. When a task is finished DOING, move it to DONE and only then do you pull another one from the TODO column.

Visual boards

Display key data everyone in your team should know. Do so in visual panels on the walls or the front page of your Intranet. It is a powerful way to engage and keep talent, a positive working environment, commitment, and diminish resistance to change.