In martial arts after a few years a practitioner comes across a few terms that translate over to the business, product, and tech world.

I have learned how these blend into daily life as a practitioner of various martial arts over the last 3 decades.

These are

  • “Kaizen” - incremental change or often translated as continuous improvement.
  • ‘Kaikaku’ - radical change or breakthrough improvement.
  • ‘Kakushin’ - new change or innovative change.
  • ‘Mushin’ - a free state of mind where a person is able to act without feeling and emotion.
  • ‘Zanshin’ - a state of situational awareness or relaxed awareness.

For the purpose of this article, I will focus on Kaizen, Kaikaku, and Kakushin.

What is the relevance of these concepts to business?

In business, we have various interactions which involve emotional conflict, are super complex, and are disruptive.

For instance, when we look at the product development lifecycle, the most important one to be aware of is Kaizen. The Kaizen Paradox concept that comes along with this is something we often do not realize.

When an organization considers the intent to transform, it looks at continuous improvement, lean and Agile.

The Agile Industrial Complex has a strong kool-aid that results in adopting scrum or some version of it LeSS/SAFe etc.

These frameworks, while better than waterfall project management, help with speed of delivery, but they act only as lip service to customer & business centricity.

To unlock innovation, a team must break through the kaizen paradox.

Kaizen focuses on individual or team-level improvements, it ignores the system.

What is the Kaizen paradox?

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The Kaizen Paradox is a predicament for 80% of businesses, where small investments are made to achieve productivity gains, normally as projects.

In doing so, they have diluted the business need for greater investments.

This causes them to plateau at a lower level of productivity.

This kills innovation and the need for innovation.

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Melissa Perri defines the build trap as an identity crisis where the organization constantly delivers features. Caused by a focus on outputs over outcomes.
"The build trap is when organizations become stuck measuring their success by outputs rather than outcomes. It's when they focus more on shipping and developing features rather than on the actual value those things produce. When companies stop producing real value for users they begin to lose market share, allowing them to be disrupted. Companies can get out of the build trap by setting themselves up to develop intentional and robust product management practices. At that point, product managers can find opportunities to maximize business and customer value. " Melissa Perri

What is the role of Kaikaku and Kakushin in all of this?

Kaikaku and Kakushin, are bought about by systematic improvement.

Kaikaku, radical improvement helps build value propositions in a product lifecycle through breakthrough improvements. This ultimately results in increasing market share.

It's the essence of unlocking stickiness to a product.

Kakushin on the other hand is focused on disrupting the market as a whole through innovation.

What happens if you get stuck in the Kaizen Paradox?

  • Employee burnout & turnover
  • Loss in competitive advantage
  • High sunk costs
  • Loss of market share

With incremental changes ongoing for a long period of time, the wrong priorities get picked, teams get burnt out and the overall impact is diminished.

Everything appears as a sunk cost to an investor and they pull out.

In many cases, organizations get sold at this stage or they go bankrupt or lose significant market share to a disruptive competitor.

This directly impacts decision-making and problem-solving capability. It becomes an endless loop of despair.

In more situations than not, the management team gets axed and replaced, and potentially a new bunch of consultants come in to "help".


So what can you do?

Awareness is key.

When you identify that your business may be stuck in the build trap or kaizen paradox, try to help it by identifying the key goals that could help shift the outcomes and culture.

I wrote a 2 part guide that goes into the discovery process deeper.

Part 1 | Part 2

Alternatively, look for a business that is not stuck in this paradox and wants to innovate as most businesses stuck in this trap cannot get out.


Some further reading

The Impact of Systems and Design Thinking on Product Management Function Design
As a product organization scales, it is impacted by 2 types of ‘thinking’ - design thinking and systems thinking.
How Do Product Owners Contribute to the Product Vision? They Don’t.
In this article, KJ Sethna shares his perspective on product owners and their contribution to the product vision.

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