Paul Magnuson, Director of Educational Research, Leysin American School.
As I understand it, kaizen is Japanese for improvement, but the use of the word in agile contexts has come to mean the type of gradual improvement that comes about when everyone keeps their eyes open for each little opportunity to make things just a little bit better. Crowdsourced improvement, more or less.
A few years ago we converted a run of the mill classroom located in the center of campus into a flexible meeting space for our research center. Café size tables, comfortable chairs, rugs, plants, a great view of the Alps. There is no projector, and originally, no whiteboard (though we later decided the utility of a whiteboard outweighed our goal to keep the room looking unschoolish).
We named the room Kaizen to emphasize that anybody can use the space and that any small improvement that comes out of that space helps the overall quality of the school.
A few months after naming the room, I got into the elevator directly across the hall and was greeted with a pleasant surprise. A professional looking set of stickers had been affixed next to the buttons marking each floor of the building. Kaizen Research Lounge jumped out at me immediately. Floor 1. Someone had improved the name of our room. A perfect example of the spirit of the room, baked right into its name. The Kaizen Research Lounge.
We probably all have our own examples of kaizen, if you stop to think about it a bit. I’ve seen our Head of School stoop to pick up a candy wrapper or piece of paper as he walks between buildings. I’m sure others have learned from him to do the same. The combined effort of many faculty ensures a clean campus.
Similarly, several years ago a few of us began helping the dining services staff clear the tables after school-wide banquets, instead of leaving directly after the closing words. Every banquet since there have been a few more of us. No one was ever told they must stay to help, but the combined small efforts of a few have created a new culture. I can guarantee that after the next banquet a large number of faculty will help clear tables. The work will be quick, distributed, satisfying, and in collegial collaboration with the non-academic staff working the dining hall. Kaizen.
You can see how this same principle applies to one’s personal life. Don’t fret about having to make major changes. Just make one small change, and one small change again after that. It adds up. You can also see how this principle encourages an increasingly professional teaching corps. If there is something to try that might be just a bit better, try it. If there are enough teachers making small improvements to their teaching, the overall teaching quality rises, and with it student learning. If teachers start to talk to each other about small improvements, sharing their successes, the effect is accelerated.
Kaizen creates a culture of improvement. One starts with oneself and it rubs off on others. People start noticing and join in, in small ways. Still others experience the positive modeling and they, too, shift their actions and thinking just a little bit. Change comes about, and continues coming about, because the culture is one of continuous improvement.
Students may notice, but even if they don’t, they are likely to benefit. It may be worthwhile, however, to make them aware of kaizen, to let them know that improvement is a distributed process, created through distributed leadership to which everyone has access and for which everyone is responsible.
Kaizen Research Lounge. Can you believe it? What a great name.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Magnuson is the director of Educational Research at Leysin American School and adjunct faculty for the International Education Program of Endicott College. His interests include student agency and self-regulated learning for students and teachers.