Improvement vs. Radical Change

In the Kanban, Scrum and Lean hemisphere there is a continuous discussion about the radical change nature of Scrum vs. the evolutionary change method of Kanban. Both are often referenced as Kaizen or Kaikaku in Kanban. But what’s the difference? When do I need one or the other? And what does this say about change in general?


Kaizen is about improvement. Retrospectives in the Agile methodologies help to foster continuous improvement. After a limited time the team gets together and reflect on their past few weeks. In the original methods retrospectives where bound to the iteration limit, like one to four weeks. With the aspiration of iteration-less methodologies like Kanban retrospectives get their own cadence, and don’t necessarily fit the planning boundary.

Retrospectives help to improve one to three things that didn’t work well. Ideally applied the actions from a retrospectives help to change the development system just a little bit. In complex systems such changes may have unpredictable consequences. This is why we restrict changes to one to three items. If we try to implement more changes at a time, we are likely to completely turn the underlying system around, thereby getting an unpredictable system.

Over time such little changes eventually lead towards a system which gets stuck. If you keep on improving a little bit time after time, you climb yourself uphill towards a local optimum of improvements. Once you picked a particular route on that journey, you might find yourself on a local optimum besides too higher mountains. But how do you get from your local optimum to a higher optimum?


This is where Kaikaku comes into play. If you got stuck in a local optimum, you may have to apply a radical change to your system in order to improve further. This comes with a risk. Once you set up for a radical change, you will get another system. Like introducing Scrum to most organizations comes with the effect of radical change. Where does my project manager belong in the three roles of team, ScurmMaster and ProductOwner? How do we integrate our testing department into the development teams? These are rather larger steps.

Comparing this with the landscape of mountains, Kaikaku is a large jiggle, like an earthquake, which might throw you onto a completely different area of the landscape. This might mean that you find yourself on another mountain top afterwards. This might also mean that you find yourself in a valley between two larger mountains. This might also mean that you end up in the desert of the lost hopes.

This also explains that too much radical change eventually leads to an uncontrolled system. Since you keep on jumping from left to right, you never settle in order to get a stabilizing system in which you can apply smaller improvement steps. In fact your system might totally collapse by too much Kaikaku.

This also explains that you should seek for the right mix of smaller improvements and larger radical changes. Once you get stuck, try to reach for a larger step, but just one at a time. From that new ground start to go uphill again by taking smaller improvements – one at a time. Over time you will eventually end up within a system that is continuously improving itself.

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