Kaizen and Kaikaku Regardless of Scrum and Kanban


Kanji character for change (part of both, Kaizen and Kaikaku)

Every now and then I hear the following being said when one compares Kanban and Scrum: Kanban is Kaizen, with continuous improvement and soft and smooth changes, and whereas Scrum is Kaikaku, with disruptiv improvement and hard and rough changes. I disagree, and I’d like to explain why.

I do Agile pilots with both methods, Scrum and Kanban (though not at the same time). Whenever I do that, there are two kinds of starting situations:

  • The first company – let’s call it Big Waves, Inc. – needs an enourmous amount of change right now, in the short term, because they could make a huge profit from it (e.g. big product idea) or because they would have to pay a huge fine (e.g. on the straight way to insolvency).
  • The second company – let’s call it Smooth, Ltd. – is fine right now, but they are looking for new ways of improvement in the long term.

Both companies learned that changing is necessary, and if they don’t change, they’ll die immediately (Big Waves, Inc.) or they won’t be successfull in the future anymore (Smooth, Ltd.) – which would result in their death, too.

Now, one could assume that for the Big Waves, Inc., Scrum would be a great way to start into the Agile world, and Smooth, Ltd., would be just fine with Kanban, right. That point of view is very popular in the Agile community: Kanban is Kaizen, and Scrum is Kaikaku.

Kaizen is Japanese and stands for »improvement« or »change for the better«. Kaikaku on the other hand stands for »radical change«. Those translations are very visible in the Kanji characters: Kaizen is written 改善, and Kaikaku 改革. Both have the same character at the beginning, 改, which means »reformation«, »change«, »modify«. The second character marks the nature of that change. Kaizen has 善 at the end, which means »virtuous«, »good«, »goodness«, and Kaikaku’s end character is 革, which means »become serious«.

Kaizen is change in tiny little baby steps in a controllable way, often affecting only a local area. Kaikaku means disruptive and non-linear change with a huge magnitude, often affecting the whole company or a more global area.

The thing is, both companies, Big Waves, Inc., and Smooth, Ltd., would ask me to introduce Scrum or Kanban, no matter what the starting situation would look like. And it’s possible to do that: Kanban and Scrum can both be introduced in a Kaizen and a Kaikaku way.

I can do Scrum the Kaizen way. I would carefully figure out which practices to introduce at what time, a good order to introduce the practices, and the tiniest baby steps the organisation could do.

The customer dictates the speed of change. I once coached a company which needed 5 months to actually start the first sprint. The company needed the time before that sprint to get used to the change. The amount of change every month was only little, but they never stopped to change, so I’d call that Kaizen.

On the other hand, I can do very disruptive Kanban to a customer, if he wants me to. The introduction to concepts like limiting the work in progress, the pull principle or even the idea of tracking the lead time can be a pretty huge change for a company.

Again, the customer dictates the speed of change. I once introduced the concept of visualization through a Kanban board. Together with the customer we visualized 201 tickets on a physical board. From the expression of the customer’s face I’d say that this step was an impressive Kaikaku.

My point is: Whether you use Kaizen or Kaikaku is not a question of the method you’d like to use. Instead, the decision of Kaizen or Kaiku, i.e. the amount of change, is driven by the customer’s need of change.


Diagram which visualizes Kaizen and Kaikaku in relation to amount and need of change

The more an organisation needs change, the more it should get. A coach should advice to use a Kaikaku approach here. The less an organisation needs change (i.e. can cope with change), the less it should get. A coach should advice to use a Kaizen approach here.

To sum this up: Whatever approach, Kaizen or Kaikaku an organisation wants to use, that does not depend upon the method, in this case Scrum and Kanban. Both methods, Scrum and Kanban, can be applied with both approaches, Kaizen and Kaikaku.

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About Bernd Schiffer

Bernd Schiffer is consultant, trainer and coach for Agile Software Development in Melbourne, Australia. Learn more about him on his personal homepage, have a look at his company Bold Mover, or contact him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, XING or LinkedIn.

8 Responses to Kaizen and Kaikaku Regardless of Scrum and Kanban

  1. Stefan Roock says:

    I like your article a lot but I find your diagram with “need for change” and “amount of change” a bit puzzling. What is with the extremes of “urgent need for little change” and “rare need for a large change”? Perhaps it would be helpful to replace one of the dimensions with “time available for the change”?

    • Hm. I think, in both cases, “urgent need for little change” and “rare need for a large change”, you wouldn’t consider to rather huge methode like Scrum or Kanban, right? So, given that this post was about the methods, I don’t think there’s a need to include those cases in the diagram.

      Actually, my first version of the diagram had “time available” on the y-axis, like you suggested. I changed this, because I think that “time available” is the wrong stimulater for change. Your need of change is independent from the time you (think you) have to do it. And, on the other hand, if you have time available, it doesn’t say anything about the amount of change you should apply.

      Therefore I find “need of change” a better stimulator. Need is what drives the customer, which is what drives the company, which, for me, implies a need to change for the company.

  2. Johannes Link says:

    Does the fact that we COULD (introduce Scrum/Kanban in both a Kaizen/Kaikaku style) mean that we SHOULD? Maybe one of the frameworks is still better suited to one of the styles.

    • Nope, that’s not what I wanted to suggest. One should use a framework regarding purpose, e.g. software development method (Scrum) or change method (Kanban). I just wanted to make the point that Kaizen or Kaikaku is IMO not what should influence your decision.

      • Stefan Roock says:

        In my experience the question Scrum or Kanban is normally answered simply by resonation. It is the approach chosen that resonates most with the client or coach.

  3. Hello Bernd,
    Your post is very interesting. I’ve translated it into french :
    Kaizen et Kaikaku indépendamment de Scrum et Kanban
    Regards,
    Fabrice

  4. Pingback: The Kaizen Method | 7Wins.eu

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