by Bruce Rockwell

Modern choir directors are faced with a daunting range of duties and challenges. The consumers of the choral art (be they audience members, students, or their parents) experience the products of our enterprise: an educational experience or learning outcome, a newly commissioned work, a recording, or a concert presentation. But the choir director must manage the many processes that yield the products. School music teachers with aspirations of building a first-rate program would do well not to envision themselves solely as choral conductors or even music educators, but as de facto managing directors of non profit performing arts organizations.

One problem is that Western management approaches are traditionally goal- or productoriented and do not serve us well. For instance, a sales manager who adds 10% onto last year’s sales figure as a goal for the upcoming year— with little or no new supports provided to staff to achieve the enhanced result—is engaging in a western, top-down style of management. Such companies are usually highly dependent upon technological innovation and extrinsic employee motivation to increase productivity.

By contrast, the style of management typified in Japanese manufacturing is predominantly process-oriented. Japanese workers, management, and executives are engaged in, and united by, a pervasive culture of process improvement. Japanese managers understand that an annual earnings growth of 10% based on sales increases alone would be difficult to attain in most industries. But with a companywide commitment to improving the underlying processes, an improvement in quality and efficiency of 10% can be more readily achieved, and to the same effect. This management approach is known as KAIZEN (kai-zɛn).

Given the overwhelming number and diversity of processes that a music educator must now oversee, kaizen management can be a powerful tool that is particularly well suited to our needs. Kaizen concepts can address virtually all elements of a choral program: performance quality, marketing, pedagogy, professional development, leadership, motivation, and group cohesion. As such, kaizen can benefit excellent, established choir programs and struggling, fledging ensembles alike.

The word “kaizen” is a closed form compound of “kai” (change, renovation) and “zen” (overall, complete, good). Its literal definition would be something like “change for the better,” and it is sometimes translated as “continual improvement.” It refers to an institutional process of constant, cyclical improvement throughout all levels of an organization. The concept of kaizen was introduced to Japanese industry in 1950 by William Edwards Deming, a statistician, physicist, lecturer, and business consultant. The rapid acceptance and thorough adoption of his ideas is widely credited for creating the Japanese “miracle economy,” when that country rose from the ashes of WWII to become a world leader in manufacturing in less than a decade

One of the central concepts of kaizen management is the “PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) Cycle,” also known as the “Deming Wheel.” According to this strategy, a process is planned, implemented (“do”), subsequently checked for accuracy or quality, and then an appropriate action is taken in response. The process is then repeated, in perpetuity. The PDCA cycle is applied to improve upon everything from large scale organizational structures down to the day-to-day minutiae impacting individual employees.

Musicians might recognize the PDCA Cycle as being reflective of the most elemental process of rehearsal—we choose a musical passage, perform it, check for accuracy or quality, then recommend an improvement or remedy. So we might already have an intuitive sense of what “continual improvement” is all about; the real power of kaizen lies in applying it not only to musical performance, but to every aspect of your choral program. Not only should the music be in a state of continual, incremental improvement, but also the marketing efforts, recruiting, stage management, classroom technology, community outreach, repertoire selection, bookkeeping, ticketing, fundraising, newsletters, social media, grant writing, concert posters, email campaigns, awards traditions, classroom procedures, etc. Everything that you do and perhaps take for granted can come under the umbrella of kaizen, and may be improved upon year-over-year. The impact of each of these incremental changes might be small; but the aggregate effect of a multitude of progressive improvements in all areas of your operation can be remarkable.

Of course all of this work cannot possibly be accomplished in a top-down fashion! Kaizen culture empowers and harnesses all members of the organization to be partners and instigators in adopting improvements. Another feature of kaizen management is the extensive use of small groups, known as “quality control circles,” to accomplish specific tasks and initiate PDCA cycles. Here again, in the choral world we are well familiar with the benefits of sectional work, which is an excellent model of a quality control circle engaged in cyclical PDCA improvement. Small group work such as this encourages leadership and collaborative skills, and elevates feelings of ownership among all members. Many choirs also have an official leadership structure that furthers the organizational vision in a semi-autonomous fashion. Boards of directors and parent booster groups are typically divided into smaller committees that oversee specialized jobs. The possibilities for productive small groups convened to accomplish specific tasks or to recommend improvements are myriad, limited only by the resourcefulness of the director and the choir leadership.

The ultimate success of these groups, and the kaizen system, depends upon a healthy group culture, and a well defined organizational vision that is understood and endorsed by all participants. Everybody must support the idea of continual improvement. By communicating your vision to all members of your organization, and inviting their input and participation in identifying problems and making recommendations, the commitment to quality among the entire group is enhanced. As such, it can be just the thing for those of us who tend to hold onto the reigns of too many tasks. Kaizen spreads the workload and responsibility throughout the organization, without impinging upon our sense of control or our quality standards.

So in concrete terms, what sorts of improvements are possible with kaizen, and how is it implemented? The possibilities are endless, but to begin, write out a list of all the different aspects of your program, and make plans for modest, achievable improvements in each area. This is a great summer ritual. These changes may be in the form of an ongoing problem that needs to be solved, or simply any area of possible improvement. Involve your choristers and/or boosters in leading these improvements as much as possible; the objective here is less busywork for the director, not more! If an improvement idea comes in the form of a goal (e.g., “get more parents to volunteer for the fundraising dinner,” “recruit 10% more freshmen than last year”), challenge yourself to write out three or four improvements in the respective processes that will enable you to achieve that goal. Here are some specific ideas to get you going:

  • Suggestion box. Be courageous enough to consider constructive criticism. You will get requests that are less helpful (“Why can’t we sing more Glee songs?”), but you may be surprised at how relevant, thoughtful, and immediately useful some of the suggestions are. When a suggestion is utilized, make sure to give ample credit.
  • Choir room. Always look for ways to improve the look and feel of your rehearsal space. Anything from major technology upgrades down to paint touch-up and basic cleaning issues. Something can always be done, on any budget.
  • Social Media. Make sure your choir’s presence on social media is active and engaging. Use evidence (number of members, number of posts/week, etc.) to gauge the progress and success of your efforts.
  • Marketing/Promotion. Digital printing is very cheap these days. Vow never again to promote your concerts with a photocopied flyer! Using student artists for marketing collateral is a nice idea, but are your posters, flyers, programs, and postcards every bit as professional and compelling as the professional ensembles in your area? Create a committee to capture and input data for postcard mailings and email services (e.g. Constant Contact). Most concerts should have an 8-week promotional calendar of drop dates and deadlines, can you improve upon yours? And can you use technology—iCal, To-Do list apps, etc.—to help you manage them? P.R. is too important not to get done; how much of this work can safely be delegated to a student committee or booster group? Strive for yearly improvement in the reach of your P.R. efforts, using specific metrics – the number of postcards mailed out, the number of posters put up (by student groups) around town, the number of hits on Facebook ads, etc.
  • Forms and paperwork. Most classrooms have several forms that get used by students throughout the year— concert reviews, sick-day forms, permission for an excused absence, etc. Are these forms doing what you need them to do? Are you using different colored paper to differentiate them easily? Are you putting “too much information” into the Student Handbook? If the handbook refers to websites, are you providing QR codes?
  • Ticketing. How professional is your box office operation? Swiping credit cards, capturing data, and online ticketing are no-brainers these days (a few companies are eventbrite.com, brownpapertickets.com, and arts-people.com).
  • Leadership. This is big. Invest in choir leadership training, as they will be implementing a Kaizen culture among their peers. Do check out Scott Lang’s materials on this subject!
  • Outreach. What can be done to better assert your choir’s role in the fabric of your community? Are you on a first-name basis with the mayor (or at least the head of Parks and Rec), and the president of your local Rotary Club? What are the big events in your community that could use a choir?
  • Fundraisers. The obvious goal is to raise more money each year, but what sorts of process improvements will accomplish this?
  • Octavo Library. What can your librarian (you have one, right?) do to clean and organize it better, and streamline the data input? Can you improve on methods for training new librarians?
  • Your office. Before classes begin, make noticeable, visible changes in the cleanliness and creature comforts you afford yourself. Make it both your work space and your sanctuary.
  • YOU! Your professional development is by far the most important Kaizen process improvement. Regularly make the investment of time to pursue professional development opportunities.

In all Kaizen efforts, regularly close the PDCA cycle with reflection and debriefing activities; don’t neglect the “check” and “action” steps. It is too easy to brainstorm great ideas that never get implemented because they simply are forgotten in the course of a long year. For each major event or activity, have the students or parents compile a manual of procedures to serve as your “institutional memory” for how the work gets accomplished; cloud computing is a perfect tool for this! Don’t just rely on tradition to relay this information, or those few “go-getter” parents to run things. Archive relevant improvement ideas in these manuals, so that you can make a habit out of incorporating last year’s action items and suggestions into this year’s planning, and relay all important information to new stakeholders.

The scope of possible improvements with Kaizen may seem overwhelming, and we have only scratched the surface! It is important to emphasize that, while the culture of Kaizen is something that you will introduce and continue to nurture as a director, the actual work of it is not accomplished in a top-down fashion. Think of it more as an “inside-out” organizational undertaking, one that affords you more freedom to focus on the pedagogical and artistic mission of your continually improving organization.

Further reading:

Imai, Masaaki. Kaizen: (Ky’zen): The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986. Lang, Scott.

Scott Lang’s Leadership Travel Guide. Chicago: GIA Publications, 2007. Maurer, Robert.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. New York: Workman, 2004.

Bruce Rockwell received his M.M. in Composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Conrad Susa and David Conte. He is a composer and arranger, and currently teaches choir and guitar at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Cantate, the magazine of the California chapter of the American Choral Directors’ Association, now the California Choral Directors’ Association”