Hansei and “being negative”

The success of a change program is dependent on many things. One of them is how the organisation deals with change. And how they learn what needs changing and whether the change was effective once introduced.

I was reminded of this while reading The Toyota Way, (J K Liker, 2004). Chapter 20 discusses Principle 14 of the Toyota Way – “become a learning organisation through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.”
It explains Hansei and Kaizen as concepts and practical tools. Kaizen has found it’s way into the Lean software development community, but this was the first time I came across the word Hansei. It means deep reflection and is the root of Kaizen.
As the author explains, Toyota found it difficult introducing Hansei into their American plants because of the cultural differences. In Japan, when a mistake is pointed out, whoever made the mistake is usually the one pointing it out, or at least accepting it, then reflecting deeply on why he made the mistake and what he can do to improve so that he doesn’t make the mistake again. It is seen as a positive thing; as an opportunity. In the West, having a mistake pointed out is taken as a sign of weakness and is seen as a negative.

Some time ago, I made my colleagues aware that a particular process was lengthy, bureaucratic, wasteful and expensive. A short time later, the CIO asked me for a chat and asked me why I was “being negative”. I was confused, and explained that, to my mind, I wasn’t being negative, I was looking for the negatives as opportunities to improve – a positive thing, I thought. But my comments were perceived as making waves, disrupting the status quo.
How, I thought, could you identify where change was needed unless you looked for the negatives?! Seeing the negatives and trying to improve them is not the same as being negative. Being negative is thinking we can’t – or won’t – improve.

The concept of Hansei is lacking in western organisations. The agile retrospective comes close, but the sort of deep and careful reflection that is Hansei requires a change of mindset similar to that required to really understand the nature of Agile itself.

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About aterny

Agile enthusiast and evangelist, DSDM practitioner, trainer and coach. Specialist in Agile project and programme management, governance and organisational transformation
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