Improving your intranet – keep it sustainable using kaizen

January 25, 2009

elephantThings can go so badly wrong with an intranet that the intranet team is left floundering.  Many intranet teams can get dispirited because the myriad of problems seem insurmountable, the size of a mountain, or at least an elephant.

What usually happens then is that an equally large re-design project with the turning circle of an oil tanker is initiated. However vital parts of the re-design don’t work or even make the problem worse and at the end of the project the team throw their hands up in the air in exasperation and doom and gloom descends once more. Sound familiar?

James Robertson talking at the BBC last year stated research has shown that  intranet re-designs in general do not work and Lou Rosenfeld, as quoted in the Brainspill blog,  felt that many re-designs were only skin deep anyway –

‘Re-design” implies only a cosmetic change. Too many redesigns are just changing the window dressing on the same product – decidedly not changing the product itself.  If the problem that prompts a redesign is that the information isn’t being used (because it’s not well presented/organized/found/etc), then changing what color it is doesn’t genuinely help.’

So what is to be done? How can we get rid of the elephant? Simple – we eat it. And how do you eat an elephant? One slice at a time ……or in other words by adopting kaizen.

What is kaizen?

 Kaizen literally means ‘good change’ in Japanese and has been translated into English as ‘continuous improvement’. It has become one of the primary and best loved approaches to improvement in Japanese industry and is not so much a technique as a mindset. It could be considered as the opposite to the big re-design as it encourages small, continual improvements which over time add up to very big gains in process improvements. Kaizen can be applied in any situation including intranets.

Kaizen is an approach that is both simple and powerful.  It is all about taking the longer view and making small, sustainable improvements in a continuous way. Kaizen is also about the ‘art of the possible’, ensuring that improvement projects are always attainable within current constraints. Although small, kaizen improvements build up and over time problems once thought to have been insurmountable suddenly become solvable and sometimes even evaporate!

How can kaizen be applied to intranets?

As kaizen is a general approach to improving things it says nothing about what it is that should be improved – you have to discover that for yourself. However I’ve found it helps immensely if you can define a structure for these discovery activities and I’ve found no better or simpler than the diagram below taken from James Robertson’s Boxes and Arrows article  ‘Succeeding at IA in the Enterprise’


James’s model provides a simple ‘top down – bottom up’ structure for the most important part of an improvement initiative – research, especially user needs analysis. This approach combines research around staff wants and needs and the business needs of the organisation whilst taking into account organisational issues and constraints. Inevitably some trade offs will need to take place but once that is achieved a set of robust recommendations can be made and the last stage is where kaizen come in  – the improvement initiatives.

Kaizen and kaizen projects

Kaizen for intranets can be thought of in two ways –

Unstructured Kaizen – Unstructured kaizen is a mindset, where all members of the intranet team are constantly on the lookout for things they can improve, however small, and then record the details of the improvement in a central record. This approach of itself can prove very powerful as improvements can build on one another leading to emergent overall improvements that can be surprisingly large. Keeping user wants and needs, as discovered in the research phase, at the forefront of everyone’s mind will help in focussing unstructured kaizen activities. 

Structured Kaizen – This is more like the accepted project approach except for the fact that kaizen projects are kept small and are not attempted unless there is likely to be a good chance of success. Kaizen projects must be fully aligned with the recommendations arrived at. If there is a big area to cover, rather than having one massive go at a problem, carve it up into bite sized chunks.

The benefits of this project approach are –

  • Keeping projects small allows for flexibility and change. Rather than having the turning circle of an oil tanker by comparison kaizen projects should have the turning circle of a small car
  • Expectations can be managed. Users become cynical and the intranet team become discouraged when things don’t work out well. Small, reasonably sized projects are easier to manage and have a better chance of success. If you need to take on a really problematic project with a less than a good chance of success make sure that everyone is aware of this at the start and don’t bundle up elements of a problem project with those that have a good chance of success
  • The approach also manages expectations by aiming for year on year improvements not a dramatic quick fix. If staff can see that their concerns are being taken seriously it will buy a lot of good will
  • Sustainability is also a key. Many projects appear to achieve good results but months or years later things fall apart. Kaizen projects, being small, can be iterative and you visit important areas again and again to ensure that performance is maintained
  • Metrics are a vital part of this approach. If you can’t define a metric for an improvement activity you probably haven’t defined the project well enough. Metrics must be as kept as simple and informative as possible

 Kaizen projects will always work best if they form part of an ongoing cycle – discovery phase / doing phase / review phase then back to the beginning again. Doing it this way means that you can have more than one go at fixing problem areas perhaps using different approaches to see what works best.

Give it a go. Small may be beautiful – and sustainable as well!

(Thanks to Reemer for his great Flickr CC photo)

6 Responses to “Improving your intranet – keep it sustainable using kaizen”

  1. Kevin Stone Says:

    Hi Patrick,

    Great article, we should definitely try for more, smaller, improvements!

    I have one quick question regarding the admin work when following such an approach. If you were doing a larger project which lasted 100 hours (for the sake of easier maths), and admin time (the usual paperwork, management etc) took 2 hours – this would equate to 2% of the time.

    If however, you were to do a smaller 10 hour improvement (via Kaizen), and the admin work again took around 2 hours, you would now be looking at this taking up 20% of the time.

    (I realise that there would be somewhat less paperwork for the smaller project, but on the whole – admin work is usually strongly defined by the organisation and often takes a set amount of time)

    Therefore, are there any changes that you make to the admin/paperwork in order to make the continual improvements possible (without being weighed down by admin)?


    • patrick c walsh Says:

      You make an excellent point. We are going to try this approach on our own intranet and have developed a kaizen project plan that is no more than 2 sides of A4.
      Management of kaizen projects should be little and often. Too much bureaucracy and it slows down the project, too little and the project could go off course.
      One very important bit of admin that should be given great attention however is the ‘lessons learnt’ from each project. Ensuring that these are documented and available for future project teams will provide them with a rich resource and should help prevent the same mistake happening twice.

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  5. Sam Says:

    I liked your post. Kaizen is a great label for this concept. In fact, by labeling it helps you keep things at the forefront.

    The positive approach of we can get *something* done or let’s at least make a small improvement is huge.

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