Kaizen: Improving sport administration will improve performance

The Japanese word kaizen is heard often in boardrooms, quality circles, and sports. Though usually translated as 'continuous improvement' a more accurate meaning is 'change for the good' and represents a way of working rather than a specific thing. It is a touchstone in sport with teams, clubs, and national associations all talking about it, setting goals for improvement, and attempting to incorporate the concept into their culture. So, what is it and how does a commitment to improvement translate into practical policies and action in sport?

Implementing kaizen means making incremental changes to procedures and policies. Small improvements. Decisions are made with the expectation that they will support efforts at improvement but also with the knowledge that if the changes don't work as planned they can be scrapped, modified, or replaced. This, too, is part of the kaizen.

Sport associations and clubs can use several methods to implement kaizen into their management practices. The following list is inspired by an article on the Mind Tools website:

  • Actively look for ways to make processes better or more efficient. This applies to practices both small and large. Large assessments may apply to the way the organization is structured or its political processes. Everything should be on the table when looking for improvements and efficiencies.
  • Plan for when changes can be made. Some changes can be implemented immediately because they are either small or affect only a limited number of people. Bigger changes need to be planned for and perhaps implemented on a schedule due to their impact on the organization, its customers, or its employees.
  • Assess how changes might affect others and what you must do to a) make the changes attractive to other workers or groups in your organization, and b) help others embrace the overall idea of kaizen both individually and within the organization.
  • Reward ideas and don't limit where they can come from. Good ideas come from everywhere and from all kinds of members and employees. By rewarding ideas you give others a stake in the process.

All organizations have to change just to remain relevant but the need for change is one of the hardest things to recognize. Often past practice determines present and future practice. This is the way we've always done it is heard often in meeting rooms. It's not so much a resistance to change as it is being satisfied with the status quo. It's a cliche to say that change is frightening but it is and for people who have become complacent in their niche in a sport organization any talk of change is threatening. This is why change in sport organizations is difficult. Officials at various levels and with various responsibilities enjoy the power that often accompanies responsibilities and are reluctant to welcome changes that may jeopardize their control.

In one metric this unrecognized need for change stands out more than in any other. This is the comparison of national team performances with those of other countries. We saw this in recent weeks when the badminton squad performed poorly in the All-England tournament and when the president of the football association resigned primarily because he failed to raise the country's world ranking during the year he had been in office.

In press appearances neither president offered a real solution to their associations problems. The badminton players were told to improve or else and the football association were compared to sheep.

The mistake that both presidents made and one that associations continue to make is that of constantly comparing Malaysia's performance relative to other countries and never measuring internal improvement. How much have our athletes actually improved in an absolute sense? In other words, how much have they improved against themselves?

The real question isn't how to beat other countries but rather how to beat ourselves. How to be better than ourselves. This is the real road to improvement. There will always be athletes that are better than us, but if we can focus on how we can constantly improve -- how we can become better than we are now -- then we will be keeping the big picture in perspective and will always be getting better, which is the true nature of kaizen.

It's nice to come out on top in an athletic contest but if we're always comparing ourselves to our opponents then measures of improvement are relative to our competition, and not absolute measures against our own previous performances. Comparing ourselves to ourselves is the only real way to gauge improvement in sport. If we can learn to do this well, and consistently, then success against our competition will come naturally.