In today’s fast-paced business environment, there is immense pressure on organizations to deliver results and keep growing quarter after quarter. In the government sector, other pressures keep employees focused on maintaining a positive image so programs can continue and receive funding. In the manufacturing sector, the focus is often on shipping new products and features to stay ahead of the competition. It seems that nobody wants to confront deep socio-technical systemic and cultural issues, and because of this, they can remain unaddressed in organizations for years (Schein & Schein, 2017). It’s a huge gamble. In rare cases, business can go on without incident. Most of the time, however, these issues arise at the most inopportune times and cause chaos, including loss of productivity and, potentially, loss of life.
We need to revisit a decades-old concept named Kaizen. Kaizen, roughly translated, means continuous improvement involving everyone in an organization. It is based on the belief that everything can be improved through small, incremental changes over time (Liker, 2004). In a true Kaizen culture, confronting problems head-on is not shied away from but rather embraced as an opportunity for positive change. A key principle in Kaizen is that the person doing the work is best suited for improving the work. On a factory floor, the line worker who notices an inefficiency or hazard is encouraged to raise the issue rather than keep quiet. They are the heroes for speaking up. This is in stark contrast to authoritarian command-and-control companies, where rocking the boat can have punitive consequences. Unspoken rules around what can and cannot be questioned create a culture of fear and conformity (Isaacs, 1999). Systemic issues simmer under the surface, unresolved for years.
According to organizational development theory, these unconfronted issues form the “organizational shadow” – aspects of the collective psyche that are repressed rather than addressed (Schein & Schein, 2017). Like the shadows of psychology, what is not brought to light can both paralyze and fuel self-destructive tendencies. Confronting the shadow requires tremendous courage because it means facing parts of ourselves we would rather not acknowledge (Holman et al., 2007). This includes confronting difficult people, delivering hard feedback, challenging long-held assumptions, and questioning the status quo. For an organization to be healthy and whole, its culture must support truth-telling, diverse viewpoints, and constructive dissent. Employees should feel psychologically safe to voice concerns, give honest opinions, and take smart risks without fear of retribution. There was a powerful image in the kaizen literature of a handle, dangling over the production line that would stop the production process if an employee were to see an issue and pull it. Does our business culture support or suppress the pulling of that handle? The handle is a reality in some places; it’s a metaphor in other organizations. In the government and service sectors, what does that handle look like?
Leaders must set the tone by inviting critique of their own ideas and modeling openness to feedback. They must reward employees who speak up about problems early rather than punish them for rocking the boat. A high-trust, transparent culture stems from leadership humility – an admission that no one has all the answers. This cultural foundation enables an organization to continually reflect, grow, and renew itself. It gives employees agency to fix broken processes rather than helplessly work around them. It allows deep issues to be brought to light rather than covered up or ignored. In this way, Kaizen is ultimately about having the courage to confront the dragon of chaos (another apt metaphor for these shadow aspects) rather than pretending it does not exist. The problems organizations avoid tend only to grow more ominous over time, like a dragon left unchallenged. But when the courage is found to face the dragon head-on, it often becomes smaller and less scary than imagined. The years of avoidance had allowed it to fester and seem giant. Once illuminated, the problem can be solved systematically through collaboration.
Practicing continuous improvement requires commitment from every level of an organization. It is not easy in today’s high-pressure business climate. However, confronting issues truthfully and courageously remains the only sustainable path to wholeness. Organizations that perpetually renew themselves through a Kaizen mindset have a tremendous advantage. They are anti-fragile enough to thrive amid disruption. The concepts of Kaizen, confronting the organizational shadow, and finding the courage to face the dragon provide powerful lenses for organizational health. No organization can afford to ignore shadows or dragons or dragons in shadows! In a world of growing complexity, the principles of openness, safety, and continuous improvement will only grow more relevant. Complex problem-solving tools exist and can be employed quickly and efficiently to find the deepest-seated issues (the nastiest dragons), confront them, and mitigate their damage. This requires a culture of courage. Organizations can build the foundations to flourish tomorrow by starting the cultural journey today.
Holman, P., Devane, T., & Cady, S. (2007). The change handbook : the definitive resource on today’s best methods for engaging whole systems (2nd rev. and expanded ed.). Berrett-Koehler San Francisco.
Isaacs, W. B. (1999). Dialogue and the art of thinking together: a pioneering approach to communicating in business and in life. Currency.
Liker, J. K. (2004). The Toyota way: 14 management principles from the world’s greatest manufacturer. McGraw-Hill Education.
Schein, E. H., & Schein, P. (2017). Organizational culture and leadership.
About the Author:
William J. Toth, PhD, BlueDragon Chief of Research & Development
Dr. (Bill) Toth is the former Manager of the Project, Program Management Office for International Nuclear Nonproliferation programs. Bill supports the development of programs and problem-solving concepts that help sites important to national security with the proactive identification and mitigation of external threats to these most secure facilities.
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