5 Steps to Leading the Kaizen Way

I first heard the word Kaizen in my first year of high school, but it originated much earlier in the 1940s, post-WWII Japan, as manufacturers looked to restart and improve on what was lost during the war. Kaizen, loosely translated into English, means to change for the better or, by its more formal understanding, continuous improvement. The term has been used in the business and academic arenas for decades. However, it is a word that best describes many churches embarking on church revitalization, developing more robust discipleship programs, and winning new people to Jesus. Whatever the need, the Kaizen philosophy could help redeem what seems broken or hopeless in many ways.

In a church world looking for a quick fix to declining measurements, the local church leadership can utilize the Kaizen method to identify, analyze, create, evaluate and celebrate the church’s systems (programs, position and partnerships) for continuous improvement. At the same time, they will rebound and redefine how the local church will minister in the future.

Step 1: Identify the problem for improvement.

There are seasons in the church’s life when you want to throw your hands up as a leader and ask, “What am I doing wrong”? By identifying the problem for improvement, you are naming the issue publicly so that others can begin to develop a solution that leads the church forward. Leading the local church can be lonely, and it should not be. The idea of continuous improvement is built around everyone having a voice to help improve systems. It empowers everyone, from the pastor to the pew, to help through a positive vision and voice in turning around the local church. 

As you begin the Kaizen process, identify one main issue that the team wants to address. Once that is agreed upon, begin to see the positives and negatives of the current program, position or partnership by deciding where the church wants to improve. Think about it this way: Is it eliminating a program, providing more resources to an area, fixing up a new space, etc.? As the team identifies the problem, they will dream of the future.

Step 2: Analyze the current situation for quality.

The team now seeks improvement by analyzing the current issue and looking for hidden gems that might have been overlooked or are worth saving as part of the new plan through a creative idea lab. The team should take their time exploring the next steps in the idea lab, where everyone can share their thoughts and then narrow them down, zeroing in on the next steps. Rushing into the situation without truly analyzing all facets of the issue will cause more heartache. So slow down, do the work, and seek the gems amid the muck.

This step focuses on developing quality, not quantity. What resources does the team need to improve or fix the problem? What does that look like regarding the budget and the people who might be a part of the turnaround? Identifying by focusing on quality is a complex but necessary step. Do not skip over this, thinking your team is more innovative than the church down the street. The foundational work done in this step will help the church revamp and improve for a new generation of believers.

Step 3: Create opportunities or systems through new solutions.

The team is now ready to develop a step-by-step action plan to renew the struggling area. Identifying to dreaming is an exciting part of the renewal process. The team gets to move the turnaround plan from the idea lab (behind-the-scenes conversations) into a safe incubator (front-facing), which can be tweaked over time as the church adjusts to the new reality. Setting a timeframe for the new program, partnership or redesigned position to be reviewed will help keep the team focused on the original premise, which was continuous improvement.  

Allow the creativity of the safety of an idea lab to tinker with a program, position or partnership to help make it better for the future, not just now. Dreaming and then adapting those dreams to fit the current realities and resources will help keep a forward-leaning posture for the church and will be seen as doable for all involved. By creating healthy wins, the team will create forward momentum to share that change is better when done together.

Step 4: Evaluate the effectiveness of the improvement. 

There is a tendency to rest once the heavy lifting has been accomplished, but to improve the church must constantly refocus on quality. Change takes a lot out of a leader, but change was not the focus; Kaizen was, which is continuous improvement. The improvement cycle continues not when the plan is born but when tweaked repeatedly to make it the best action plan possible for the church. 

Begin within the first month of implementation to evaluate the effectiveness of the improvement. Be bold about questioning what is working and what is not working. It is easier to adapt a new program to a new reality than an old one with an old reality mindset. 

If the team notices that something is not working, stop it, change it or keep evaluating it for a period of time. Do not allow the team to be lulled into a false sense of complacency. Keep pressing, asking questions, reviewing, adapting and then relaunch if you have to, but in all ways, keep improving the product.

Step 5: Celebrate the improvement but continue to review. 

Celebrate the win. Celebrate that diverse thinkers came together to acknowledge a problem, reviewed the situation honestly, designed new systems, tinkered with the plan, and birthed it through practical learning and sharing. That, my friends, is a win for the ages. The idea behind Kaizen was to never stop improving, and with this five-step plan, the local church can continue to achieve new heights over time. While this may have been a business and academic model, the Kaizen model fits nicely into the local church if the leadership team is willing to share power, trust the people, work the process, and never settle for comfort. 

Comfort is the enemy of the church, and Kaizen opposes it. The Kaizen cycle constantly looks forward to seeing how the program, position or partnership could be improved even more over time. If your church is stagnant or struggling to reach the community, using the Kaizen model could help restructure the church to live out the mission to win others to Christ.

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Desmond Barrett
Desmond Barrett
Desmond Barrett is the lead pastor at Winter Haven First Church of the Nazarene in Winter Haven, Florida. He is the author of several books, most recently, Helping the Small Church Win Guests: Preparing To Increase Attendance (Wipf & Stock Publications) and has done extensive research in the area of church revitalization and serves as church revitalizer, consultant, coach, podcast host and mentor to revitalizing pastors and churches.