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The KaiXen chapters: Xero’s approach to continual improvement

Posted 4 months ago in Advisors by Jessica Matthews

In Japanese philosophy, change is represented by the word ‘kai’, and ‘zen’ means ‘for the better’.

As we rapidly scale our technology capabilities in the pursuit of becoming the world’s most sustainably excellent engineering company, we know just how important the kaizen approach to continual improvement – small changes, over time – is in how we identify problems, and solve them. 

To us, truly sustainable engineering revolves around having common practices, toolsets and learnings that allow everyone to work in a consistent and collaborative way, no matter what engineering discipline they fall into. 

By design, our engineering processes should be simple and repeatable, giving everyone a common language that they can understand – and offering engineers an opportunity to feed up into, and progress the thoughts of leadership. 

For that reason, we named the community builder framework that supports our communities ‘KaiXen’.

The KaiXen guild was developed to help foster a culture where people are encouraged to (and rewarded for) thinking big. When our people seek ways to improve how they work, we know that it benefits how we function as a business. Of the six organically-started communities of practice that have gone through KaiXen, it was the core group behind the frontend community that found the greatest benefit straightaway.

Creating a strong community approach

According to lead engineer (and frontend community facilitator) Prae Songprasit, it’s consent-driven decision-making that makes the biggest impact.

When engineers agree to the standards that should apply to their domain, generally the result is better software delivery from those who are closest to the problems they face. By engaging in collaborative practice development – and sustainable practices – a natural consequence is more of a ‘bottom up’ approach to engineering advancement. 

According to Prae, “Within our community, there’s a place at Xero that I belong to. In our front-end development community, I’m not the only one trying to bake better UX and accessibility into the way we develop software. I’m not the only one at Xero who wants to learn how to build great designs with resilient code.

Most engineers aren’t taught front-end principles through their studies. Concepts like responsive design, universal design, and accessibility are usually self-taught, or learned on the job. Our community of practice encourages them to understand the code, of course, but also the discipline itself, so they can challenge and grow with designers. We’re working on building a front-end career ladder right now, with all of the things you need to be a successful front-end engineer at Xero: design principles, collaboration with designers, understanding of modern front-end tooling, and testing to ensure quality software.

It’s a long-term goal. As with most things – we’re not completely there yet. For our community of practice to become a safe place for people who want to learn and support front-end efforts, we’re asking for more people-leads to see communities of practice as a viable effort, worthy of sponsorship.”

So how does a community of practice work?

Communities start up organically, usually by a core group of a few people focused on building it out. According to Prae, though, they take on more of an organisational role than a traditional leader. 

“We don’t call ourselves leaders: we’re facilitators. Ideally we want to get to a point where all communities are self-run. So, our role will simply be to facilitate the conversations within the communities – not direct them.”

A lot of the work communities of practice engage in is focused on enablement, with a framework influenced by AWS’ Community Builder Workshop Series. Within this, there’s a particular focus on teaching communities to structure themselves as a product, applying design-thinking to the way that they run.

Most members invest half an hour per week, or one hour every two weeks as part of their jog day in a typical sprint. Members get involved for reasons that span across career development, personal interest and even a curiosity about how a community is governed. Often, committed engineers engage because they feel that their contributions and opinions are valued.

The ultimate goal for the communities

As companies scale and grow – along with the team disciplines within them – a common trap with engineering is that enablement and optimisation of workflow can become localised. 

When teams make decisions in silo, it can sometimes decelerate the speed at which code is released. To realise our vision of more sustainable engineering, we want KaiXen to drive consistency, helping people onboard on new tools efficiently and bolster practice capability. 

Prae says of the front-end community of practice: “People might be interested in a trending front-end tool that’ss great for testing, but they have no experience using it. Through KaiXen, we would work on a governance piece where we clearly outline how to advocate for it, helping them create a proposal template, and offer steps to implement the practice in our web application standards.”

We believe that investing in enabling our people to innovate is crucial to our success. Through KaiXen, our ultimate goal is for engineers to feel empowered to highlight issues in their domain, and actually work on making a few changes in the business. 

For mature communities, this means that they will both have the opportunity to collaborate with Xero’s enablement teams to progress the approval and availability of new capabilities, while offering steps to implement the practice as part of Xero’s engineering standards. In driving a cultural shift where we normalise our people to spend their time on enablement opportunities, we believe that transformation of their craft is the result. As we continue to look forward, we are excited to see our new and existing engineers play a role in how this program works in practice.

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