CAN I? Yes You Can!

Kaizen is the belief that small improvements over time can create huge changes. A fun mnemonic used to describe Kaizen is “Constant And Never-ending Improvement,” or “CAN I.” Historically, we’ve seen this term in use in manufacturing companies where employees at all levels work together to achieve “lean” improvements in a manufacturing process, such as implementing a PDCA cycle (plan, do, check, act) to a specific portion of production.

Organizations are quickly realizing that even in this digital age, sustaining success over time requires continual investment in talent development (The Talent Paradox, Deloitte, Oct 2018). And so, more recently, industries outside manufacturing have adopted and applied the Kaizen philosophy with a spin towards continuous improvement of people. In this adapted approach, organizations focus on implementing talent strategies that aim to retain employees by offering options for continuous professional development such as competency-based training programs, development planning, and coaching.

With this rise in the investment of talent comes a huge opportunity for employees. They need only step up to the plate to engage with these offerings in the interest of their own professional growth.

In a recently published Digital Business Global Executive Study (MIT Sloan Management Review, 2018), a full 90% of respondents recognized a need for annual skills updates, however only 50% saw development as a year-round, continuous exercise. When the need to improve is so widely apparent and the opportunities in talent development are so readily available, why do many employees let the chance to improve oneself pass them by? The answer boils down to what we like to call one’s “Ripeness.” This term describes a person’s readiness to change in general or in a particular area. Quite simply, there are some people who are “more ripe” than others (at certain points in time).

Where does Ripeness start?

While there are many components to determining a person’s ripeness, one component in particular refers to a person’s hard-wired level of openness to growth and development. In our research, we’ve found that the most improved leaders frequently reference a commitment to continued self-improvement. These leaders have a certain trait-level openness with a high natural inclination to change. Simply put, these leaders embody a “growth mindset”; believing that they can improve and develop over time. (Here’s a little history lesson: Psychologist Carol Dweck first coined the term “growth mindset” over 30 years ago. Since then, there has been much research around the term and the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence.)

The flip side to this scenario is the leader who has low natural inclination, or a “fixed mindset.” Those who embody a fixed mindset generally think that their basic qualities (including their talents and skills) are permanent traits which are not likely to change much over time. While these people are generally less open to development efforts, it is not to say that they will not ever change. People with low natural inclination tend to need more direct and frequent feedback with specific goals, clear incentives, and time build into the change process to focus on skill and confidence building. One way to support their ripeness to change is to instill confidence and set the expectation that the requested change is not a big stretch and is more about behavioral tweaks rather than grand, sweeping personality changes. Another strategy to enhance ripeness for individuals who aren’t naturally open to development is to help them tweak something they are already doing, tap into a side of themselves that they don’t often display (hidden strengths), and set small, incremental goals for change over time. Most people with low natural inclination can and do make changes, it just requires more consistency and patience from those supporting their development.

Think of having low natural inclination as having a headwind – it can make the development journey more difficult, but not impossible. Having high natural inclination, on the other hand, acts as a tailwind, accelerating and speeding the journey of change.

A Challenge to Increase Ripeness

Assessing ripeness can be used in business as well as in personal dynamics, and can be expanded for organizations to enhance continuous professional development (people improvement) strategies. Here are some helpful questions to assess ripeness based on natural inclination to change, positioned in the spirit of the “CAN I” Kaizen approach:


  • Be open to self-development?
  • Point to instances where I have improved through hard work and persistence?
  • Be open to receiving feedback?
  • Be persistent in my pursuit of development goals?
  • Take advantage of development opportunities offered inside and outside my organization?
  • Be confident that my development efforts will have meaningful impact?

This concept has been developed and illustrated in detail in our newly released best-selling book “Ready, Set, RIPEN!” which can be found on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions

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March 21, 2019