Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 09-06-08

Author: Masaaki Imai

Publication Date: 1987

Book Description: What’s the key message?

Kaizen means improvement. In the workplace, it means continuous improvement involving everyone – managers and workers alike. The book focuses much more on the attitudes and culture of kaizen than it does the tools. The most extended tools discussion is probably found in the appendices, covering some basics with little detail for 3M (Muda, Muri and Mura), 5-S, five Ws and one H, 4-M (Man, Machine, Material, Method) Checklist and the Seven Statistical Tools and Seven New Tools.

One significant theme throughout the book is the responsibility of individuals for kaizen. Imai distinguishes between three types of work: innovation, kaizen and maintenance. The point is made that most resources inside an organization from top to bottom are focused on maintenance activities, which is keeping things in order and humming along with the status quo. At the top of the company, a significant portion of time is also spent on innovation. Imai believes that on the front lines of an organization, the dominant activity is still maintenance. But at each subsequent level, kaizen becomes a more and more significant activity until at the top levels, there is only innovation and kaizen, leaving maintaining the status quo to the rest of the organization.

Chapter 1, Kaizen, The Concept, focuses on the process versus results mindset. This is the essence of lean, going all the way back to the teachings of Dr. Deming. In order to get true continuous improvement, you can not put all your emphasis on the results. The process generates the results, and therefore in order to get different results, you must change the process. Chapter 1 also introduces kaizen as, quite literally, an umbrella of continuous improvement. Under the kaizen umbrella falls many lean terms: QC circles, suggestion system, TPM, Just-in-Time, Zero Defects and so on.

Chapter 2, Improvement East and West, contrasts Eastern cultures (mostly Japan) with Western cultures. He explains that Western cultures focus more on Innovation, while Eastern cultures focus more on Kaizen. He is very clear that Kaizen is not better than Innovation, but that it is about having both Innovation and Kaizen.

Chapter 3, Kaizen by Total Quality Control, lays out the thorough marriage between TQM/TQC and Kaizen. It discusses several concepts central to Kaizen and TQC. One key concept, and one that is often lost in lean discussions today, is the idea of market-in or customer focus versus product out or manufacturing focus. The customer defines reality for us, and all our processes must be aligned based on the voice of the customer. Also covered is the fundamental concept of PDCA, or Plan Do Check Act, and several examples are provided.

Chapter 4, Kaizen – The Practice, centers on three segments of Kaizen: Management-oriented Kaizen, Group-Oriented Kaizen and Individual-Oriented Kaizen. The chapter starts with an excellent table that spells out the three practices in terms of tools, who it involves, the target, the cycle or time period, achievements, the supporting system, implementation cost, results, what it boosts (such as morale) and in what direction you will head. Details of implementation and execution are fairly limited, however.

Chapter 5, Kaizen Management, explores Kaizen activities in management such as cross-functional management, including an extensive case study of cross-functional management at Toyota. Policy deployment, often referred to as hoshin kanri, is touched upon, and although it is a very important topic, it only gets 3 pages here. Other topics include Control Points and TPM.

Chapter 6, The Kaizen Approach to Problem Solving, starts by delving into the topic of labor and management relations. While a little misplaced, the lead in is that problem solving in small groups is a way to bridge the gap between labor and management. Central to this chapter is an 18 page case study titled Solving Problems Together: The Introduction of TQC at Kayaba where even the process flow maps were included.

Chapter 7, Changing the Corporate Culture, challenges traditional views on management that must change to enable kaizen. An important statement in this chapter is “All the Kaizen programs implemented in Japan have had one key prerequisite in common: getting workers’ acceptance and overcoming their resistance to change.” This is the job of management.

How does it contribute ot the lean knowledge base?

Based on the date published, the impact of the author and the subject matter, this book was an influence on many of the teachers and writers of lean today. The book does not get nearly the attention that it did in its first five years, and is rarely listed at the top of lean book lists anymore. That being said, even though kaizen is only one dimension of lean, it is a more popular Google search term than lean manufacturing.

Kaizen, along with its sequel Gemba Kaizen, belongs without question on a “classics” list of lean or any list of books on continuous improvement. Other books are more helpful in terms of what lean is all about and how to do it, but the timing and impact of this book can be seen as a true contribution to what we know about lean and kaizen today.

What are the highlights? What works?

The two strengths of this book are (1) its focus on thinking, behavior and culture and (2) its overall impact on our collective understanding of lean transformation. The book does not go through in painstaking details how this tool or that tool works. Other books are available for that. Kaizen focuses on the way people approach work, approach improving their work and how management and workers alike can change their mindset. Its use of case studies and models to highlight this change of thinking makes it very apparent that an organization can not transform itself through tools alone.

The book has impacted hundreds of other books. As you read other books, you may never know when someone was influenced by Imai’s writings or teachings. However, you can be assured that just like any study of economics is in some way influenced by Adam Smith, any study of lean is likely influenced by Imai.

What are the weaknesses? What’s missing?

One major weakness, more so in delivery than fact, is the stark difference drawn between Japanese and Western companies. The reality is that only a handful of Japanese companies have mastered these techniques with many of the companies achieving low performance. Many companies in the U.S. and other Western cultures, even in 1987, had achieved excellent continuous improvement records. The delivery would be more effective and more palatable if drawing the distinction not across nationalistic lines but simply across management behaviors and practices.

The book also isolates Kaizen, making it a “thing” unto itself, which most effective lean implementations would not find consistent. It is part of this practice, along with the authors, companies and consultants that followed, that allows kaizen and lean to often be disconnected in practice.

How should I read this to get the most out of it?

Do not read this book as a “how to” book. It only belongs as part of a portfolio of lean reading. However, for the manager who (a) does not understand their role in kaizen, lean, or all things continuous improvement and (b) thinks a little training in kaizen tools will do the trick, this book may be the perfect antidote. It will clearly articulate what must change in your mind and in management in order to enable kaizen. This is also a great tool for writers to reference when exploring lean concepts as several themes are articulated here that are not articulated elsewhere.