One of my favorite things about following athletes is that when a reporter asks them “What are you doing?” the answer is invariably “Just trying to get better every day.”
The concept of kaizen, the Japanese word for “continuous improvement” seems to always be applied in the context of business to “activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers.”. But the individual’s performance is not considered.
Bill Parcells, Hall of Fame football coach, would wake up every morning asking himself one simple question: “What can I do today to make my football team better?”
I was reminded of the concept of kaizen when watching a documentary on PBS about the Beatles album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It showed a clip of Paul McCartney explaining why the Beatles stopped touring. He said something to the effect that “We can’t hear ourselves play [due to the screaming of the crowd and the lack of on stage monitoring speakers, or today IEMs -in-ear monitors), so how could we improve?” Perhaps it’s that important thought that’s behind the song “Getting Better.”: A little better all the time…
Malcom Gladwell famously wrote in this book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at something, whether it’s music or athletics. But what subsequent studies have proven is that is necessary, but not sufficient. What distinguishes the professional’s practice from the amateur’s is that professional musicians, for example, practice exceedingly difficult exercises each day until they master them. Amateurs tend to play the same thing, over and over.
There’s a great story that Charlie Parker as a young musician, practiced playing his saxophone in all 12 keys, not knowing at the time that jazz was generally not played in most of those keys at all! It didn’t matter, by mastering these obscure and difficult keys he became a much better player and improviser.
So my advice to founders is, yes kaizen is important for your venture. Put in place the metrics to measure continuous improvement of your functions and systems. But go further. Act as if all of your employees were athletes and you were their coach: help each of them improve every day. ?Annual or even quarterly reviews are totally obsolete. Performance needs to be continuously reviewed, and improved. Admittedly this isn’t easy. It’s far simpler to measure a quarterback’s improving accuracy in throwing a pass than it is a developer’s ability to write elegant, bug-free and optimized code. But as the saying goes “that’s why they pay you the big bucks.”