Kaizen: What Can Companies Learn from This Japanese Philosophy?

In 2002, a Nairobi-based fast-moving-consumer-goods company applied for ISO 9000 certification. ISO is short for the International Organization for Standardization, a certification showing that a company has in place objectively verifiable standards to maintain an efficient quality system. As part of the certification process, this company received a large file from the certifying body. The requirement was that every employee had to go through the data and familiarize oneself with its contents.

At the end of four weeks, the Quality Control Manager at the FMCG company summoned all employees to a follow-up meeting. The agenda, he announced at the meeting, was to assess the workers' perception of the file's contents and to collect and collate their feedback in readiness for the next step in the certification process.

"How many of you have taken the trouble to pick the file from my office and read it?" he asked.

The manager knew what to expect. While the 150 or so employees exchanged confused stares, he bent down and, for some moments, appeared busy scribbling on a notepad. After about five minutes, he looked up, a knowing smile on his face. Placing his hand lightly on the hefty file, he again asked, "So, how many of you have read this file?"

After letting the employees panic, not knowing what to expect, the Quality Control Manager stated, "Actually, only one of you took the trouble to check out the file from my office. I hope he did read it."

While such experiences are common in organizations, large and small, the need to understand, manage, and improve processes cannot be overemphasized. Without a clear understanding of the organizational process, workers' efficiency becomes undermined because one cannot improve upon a process unless he or she has explicit knowledge of it.

Perhaps the one principle that captures the essence of change and improvement best is the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen. Under Kaizen, which roughly translates to "good change," there is an emphasis on continuous improvement of both personal efficiency and working practices. Why is continuous improvement within an organizational setting important? American football player and coach Vince Lombardi answers this question well: "Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence."

The mindset of Kaizen underscores change—moving forward—under the following fundamental principles:

1. Prepare for change

It can be tempting for an organization to get stuck in the rut of doing things the old, comfortable way. In our rapidly evolving corporate setting, failure to change and improve can be suicidal. A printing technician in Nairobi shared this personal experience: "I did not understand the power of change until change rendered me jobless." By the 1990s, he related, he was quite comfortable in his job as a platemaker at a printing press. "I had gone to school and studied lithography," he said. "Mostly, my role entailed working with plates, which you ink, and which transfer the ink to paper or some other material in what is termed offset printing."

Over the years, he said, there had been fears amongst his peers that computers might render them obsolete, at least at his company. Then, one day, his employer announced that they were discontinuing the use of plates and introducing a technology called "computer to the printer." In essence, the company was automating the printing process. Slowly, the organization phased out plate-making—and anyone whose job entailed the making of inking plates.

For a few months, this lithographer found himself jobless. Once the denial phase was over, however, he regrouped, sold a piece of land he owned, and used the proceeds to finance his re-education. He obtained a degree in IT and, today, he heads the IT department at an organization similar to his former employer.

2. Improve everything continuously

Kaizen also encapsulates the principle of continuous improvement. Here, the first step is to establish where the organization is at present. The question is, "Where do we stand?" After that, the organization sets goals about what measurable achievements must be made on products, services, or processes within a stipulated time limit. In this regard, Albert Einstein's somewhat counter-intuitive quote is instructive: "If I had one hour to save the world," he said, "I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution."

Why spend so much time defining the problem? Within an organization, perhaps nothing causes more problems than stampeding into solving an issue that has not been properly conceptualized.

James H. Harrington, a quality engineer who is also certified by the American Society for Quality Control, adds: "Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can't measure something, you can't understand it. If you can't understand it, you can't control it. If you can't control it, you can't improve it."

Such is the power of simultaneously analyzing the twin pairs of "understanding" and "improvement." No wonder, in scientific research, great emphasis is placed on what is termed "problem definition." In empirical research, the problem must first be defined in such a manner that it lends itself to careful investigation. This mindset of Kaizen, if followed religiously, can solve many of the intractable problems in which organizational managers routinely find themselves.

3. Do not tolerate excuses; work to create positive change

While he was somewhat abrasive in his tone and approach to issues, American author and motivational speaker, Jordan Ross Belfort, left us with unforgettable words. He stated: "The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can't achieve it."

Many organizational managers, faced with excuse after excuse about why something cannot be achieved, are, like Belfort, tempted to use the BS word. Although the use of such coarse language is frowned upon, the message is clear: Excuses kill! Why? Because we know that Brazilian football superstar Pelé, was only 17 years old when he won the World Cup in 1958 with Brazil. We also know that Helen Keller became deaf and blind at 19 months, but that did not stop her. Fighting against the odds, she would become the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

4. New methods, if wrong, must be abandoned

Remember Google Glass? The smart spectacles unveiled by the search engine giant, Google, in 2012 were meant to serve as a hands-free smartphone, replete with a camera, an internet browser, maps, calendar, and other apps—a wearable computer with a head-mounted display. At its launch, the world was treated to a demo featuring skydivers streaming their jumping stunts via the device.

Notwithstanding the hype, the gadget was shelved in 2015. Why? It was over-priced (a pair retailed for US$1,500), and there were concerns about invasion of privacy, in that the user of the Google Glass could record videos discreetly in such forums as restaurants and bars. Also, of course, this product lacked a unique selling proposition—a compelling reason why the consumer had to have it. Ultimately, Google Glass had to go.

The Kaizen principle here is that just because something is new does not mean it is relevant. Equally valid is that just because something is old does not mean it is worthless. Japanese multimedia singer, songwriter, and peace activist, Yoko Ono, put it perfectly: "Some people are old at 18, and some are young at 90. Time is a concept that humans created." Similarly, some new concepts are worthless, and certain old ones have stood the test of time. A good example: the motor vehicle, which was invented some 135 years ago by German inventors like Karl Benz.

5. Empower workers to engage routinely in problem-solving.

The Kaizen principle stresses the importance of discipline among workers, either individually or as part of teams, to harness the problem-solving morale. Essentially, to solve problems is to be innovative. And there can be no growth without innovation. To empower workers to solve problems is to grow both the worker and the organization. British science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke believes that creative day-dreaming is the path to positive change and innovation. He said, "The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible."

One sure way for organizations to nurture the culture of problem-solving is to reward innovation. And one of the surest means of killing innovation is to punish failure, especially within a business. Above, we discussed the collapse of the Google Glass. Should Google necessarily penalize the inventors of this technological gadget that was never to be? Hardly. It would help if companies put aside an innovation (or problem-solving) budget just for the purpose. As long people do not innovate for the sake of innovation, as long innovation has a purpose and is guided by clear rules of operation, workers will be inspired to develop a positive problem-solving attitude and, in the process, grow both themselves and their host organizations.

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