Monday, November 26, 2007

Rhetoric, Process, and Kaizen: Take Two.

Now you are getting your head around the basic elements of communications---the sender, the message, the receiver, noise, and feedback---and learning to notice how appeals work in terms of your head, your emotions, and to gain identification---logos, pathos, and ethos, it's time to talk some down and dirty about how to improve your writing. The basic notion of how to make improvements in any process (like writing), can be found in the industrial management philosophy of Kaizen.

If you do a quick google of "Kaizen," you'll learn it's the industrial management philosophy which led to Japan being the technological and industrial powerhouse it is. This way of approaching process brings together the best of Western ideas about motion study and efficiency and Japanese notions of how communities and individuals work. It's one of a handful of the most powerful ideas to emerge from the 20th C, and it came into being at the end of WWII.

The US wanted to build a working democracy out of the wreckage of Japan at the end of WWII. Japanese industry was geared up for war, and the US had learned from how it had handled Germany at the end of WWI that for democracy to work, you had to have a certain amount of wealth flowing through out a viable economy; so, the US sent in some of our best industrial engineers to help Japan to build a consumer industrial base.

These folks were well grounded in how to set up a factory to mass produce, but they didn't have a clue as to how Japanese culture functions. The upshot was they tried to impose the latest 1930s/'40s motion and process theory and failed miserably. Japanese culture sees work holistically. It tends to see the individual as part of a community, and the function of work not so much as a means of producing a product but as a means of maintaining the viability of the community and the pride and sense of status of the individual within the community. Luckily, the Japanese were able to work with the well intentioned Americans to come up with a theory of industrial process which combined the best of both ways of working.

From the US, they took the notion of process, that is, when you do something over and over (like writing a sentence, paragraph, or email), you tend to follow the same steps and tend to need the same stuff. If you break down such repeatable activities into set steps, you can focus on one aspect of the process at a time and work to improve its efficiency. You might, for instance, make sure the tools you need for a task are at your workstation instead of stored across the room, saving you the time needed to get up, loose your train of thought, and go across the room to get a pencil or keyboard. The idea is as you improve the efficiency of the individual steps, you improve the overall efficiency of the process and your ability to compete.

Now American thought tended to think of process efficiency as a means to an end. You get a factory up to a certain level of productivity per man hour, and you can compete. The Japanese had the brilliant insight---based on Zen notions of work based meditation--that one never reaches a perfect process; instead, one can just improve the process at hand; but, and this is a big but, you can make small, continuous improvements to whichever processes is in place. Literally, one's focus isn't on the end product, but on the doing or the work necessary to a task. You practice and perfect the doing of a task, not the product of the task. The upshot is they created the notion of continual small improvements to process or Kaizen. It's quite literally a continuous focus of improving how the task is done and assuming that a good process will produce a good product which can compete.

There are some additional flourishes. Kaizen rewards workers who come up with a means to improve how their task is done. It creates time in a production schedule to have regular meetings of the workers, management, and sales folks to discuss process and product. The idea is everyone needs to understand the big picture, so they can understand their part. In any event, small groups meet to make decisions about which improvements to process to implement and to judge if a change in process is an improvement or not. There's also the notion of low hanging fruit vs. high hanging fruit. That is, one always begins work on a process from the process already in place. This process already allows you to receive some gain or, to use the Kaizen metaphor, pick the lowest hanging fruit. As you make improvements, you add to your gains by being able to pick the lowest hanging fruit and some higher hanging fruit. The upshot is your return in the investment of improving process is always increased return.

Kaizen can be applied to any process, from coding to writing to your morning routine. Let's talk about writing. You currently use a series of processes when you write. As you write and revise your inventory of WPA Outcomes, think how you produce writing currently and give these processes your attention. Break writing down into the steps you follow as you produce. For instance, how do you proofread? How do you draft? Do you build in time for revision? We'll be discussing how composition and rhetoric has broken down the task of writing and making speeches, but my goal here is to just give you some language for thinking about the processes you use as you create and write. I encourage you to think about processes in the work you do or want to do. Once you begin noticing the steps you follow and can accept the notion of improving how you produce through making small, continuous changes in these processes, you'll be half-way to becoming a writer.

Write if you have questions, comments, or observations.

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