Continuous Improvement: How to Kaizen Your Remote Workforce

By Jayne Hallock, Slalom Build

There’s a powerful Japanese business philosophy called Kaizen. Developed just after WW2, it emphasizes the importance of “continuous improvement of working practices.” The thinking is, by thoughtfully putting a system in place to continuously improve the company – or even just individual operations – maximum potential can be incrementally achieved.

Interestingly, the human factor is one of the most important issues addressed by this philosophy. Let’s hear it from the experts at the Kaizen Institute:

KAIZEN means improvement... in personal life, home life, social life, and working life. When applied to the workplace KAIZEN means continuing improvement involving everyone – managers and workers alike.

That’s pretty profound. Not every business improvement process bothers to fold in anything about the human side of things, let alone placing people in the center of it all. “Profits over people!” is a much more common boardroom battle cry.

In fact, these days it’s becoming painfully obvious which organizations stand by their people and which see them as disposable assets. Even if yours has been forced to make difficult decisions, there is a way to make sure your workforce feels heard and happy. All while improving the business. Kaizen.

And where are many of your people right now? Home! Let’s talk about ways you can ensure that they – and your business – aren’t just surviving, but thriving at home.


Set clear expectations (and follow them yourself!)

Though it may seem obvious, it’s possible your team is still a little unsure what is expected of them. Not just their job duties but also the when and how of their roles. Are their priorities static or will they change from week to week? Do they need to constantly check in throughout the day, or are they fine left to their own devices.

Even something seemingly standard like the official start and end times for a regular workday can cause consternation – don’t just assume everyone knows.

Plus, as we’re all always connected, your team might be stressing out about being online earlier and/or later than typically expected. And part of the reason for the confusion is, well, you. They might see emails and activity from you early the in morning until late at night. They might hear you talk about how incredibly slammed you are and wonder if they should be feeling slammed too. So make sure you let them know your expectations of their typical workday even if – especially if – it’s different from your own schedule.

Kaizen Tip: This isn’t a set it and forget it situation. Once a month, check in with your team about hours and online accessibility. Between family obligations and personal appointments, hours that worked even last month might not be tenable today. And don’t assume they’ll just tell you when it’s not working – most don’t want to be labeled a complainer – especially now. So, ask. Make it a point to talk.

Tighten up meeting cadences and topics

One of the most disorienting aspects of everyone working in their own little corner of the world is not being able to just walk by someone’s desk for a quick chat. Now more than ever, scheduled meetings are crucial for both brainstorming and simply staying on the same page.

By now, you surely have a regular schedule of meetings. Maybe they’ve been on the books since before everyone started working from home. And maybe that was intentional – to provide a bit of consistency and normalcy during a very abnormal time.

But those meetings might not still work. Have you asked? Do they crave more one-on-one meetings with you? Do they want more quick check-in/huddles…or fewer?

Kaizen Tip: Keep polling. Every few weeks ask specifically about meeting schedules. Also –consider dividing bigger meetings into smaller ones. Research has shown that employees stay more engaged and have clearer takeaways when you meet about fewer topics (even just one!) versus cramming them all into one meeting.


Check Your Tech

Imagine all this without access to modern technology. Things would be soooo much harder! Thank goodness for the likes of Zoom and Teams and Google Docs. And bless that cloud.

Certainly, by now you have basic technologies in place: online meetings and file-sharing and all that. But what about the more nuanced issues you and your staff are facing? Some of the most frustrating challenges of working from home have little to do with accessing a shared spreadsheet or creating entertaining backgrounds. But distraction, motivation, productivity, they’re all daily struggles for the remote workforce.

Fortunately, there are some great apps that can help both you and your staff overcome some very human challenges.

Toggl
: This workflow tracking app is an accountability monster. It lets you see how you spend your time and uses that data make you smarter and more productive. It also has analytical time management reports and integrated calendars.

Focus@Will: Though this subscription is on the pricey side, it could be worth it. Helping you and your team become more focused and more productive via music that “…has been tested by scientists and experts in order to measure the effects of the instrumental pieces on the brain and heart-rate… it promises to help you ease into a focused state within 20 minutes and then stay in said focused state for up to 200 minutes."

15five: Perhaps the most Kaizen of all, this one helps your organization create a culture of feedback. Via automated, regular surveys for every team member, it takes the pulse of each employee on everything from how they’re feeling about work that week to how their work is aligning with the team’s overall OKRs. It even helps make employees feel more appreciated via virtual ‘high fives’ and team-wide recognitions.

Kaizen Tip: This list only covers generically helpful apps that anyone can use to be more productive. Seek out apps that specifically help you in your role and industry. And keep checking! New apps pop up all the time. Like, every hour.

The importance of moving forward.

While we don’t call it Kaizen specifically, Slalom Build has been dedicated to continuous improvement since day one. Our Product Engineering Methodology emphasizes rapid and continuous iteration, creating things then creating them better. Day after day, sprint after sprint. It’s about as Kaizen as it gets.

And despite how it all feels these days, the world hasn't come to a complete stop. Your work from home procedures shouldn't either. Like everything in your organization, they can and should be ever improving, ever evolving. Every day we should find ways to make this new way of working work better for everyone. It’s the Kaizen way.

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