Understanding Kaizen: Lessons Learned From Japan’s Jump From Worst to First

Understanding Kaizen: Lessons Learned From Japan’s Jump From Worst to First

In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan was the champion of global manufacturing. Electronics and automobile products coming out of Japanese plants left manufacturers around the world in the dust, at least in terms of quality and reliability. As the decades progressed an entire television manufacturing industry moved away from the US

This was a huge achievement because in the post war years, “Made in Japan” did not signify success or quality. After World War II, American quality assurance professionals taught statistical quality control to the Japanese to help the country rebuild and develop its manufacturing industry and position itself to export more goods of an increased quality.

Japanese professionals pushed the concepts of statistical quality control even further, incorporating the best aspects of their culture with modern manufacturing management to create what is called kaizen, which translates as “continuous improvement.” Toyota is famed for using this approach in its production of cars.

Big Concept, Simple Word

Being able to capture such a huge concept in one simple word has its benefits. It gives us something that is easy to express and pass on to others. It gives us something that is easy to rally around.

If you can grab the spirit and use the tools of kaizen and apply them to all aspects of your business - you’ll find yourself creating a world-class company. Every aspect of your operation should be applying kaizen to improve itself everyday. For example, do you write proposal documents? I use this illustration because I do this a lot in the course of my work for ConeX. Across the South West there are lots of exciting small scale projects and we’re helping businesses make the connections to move them forward. So, on a Monday I tend to say “Right, I have to get five proposals out to connections before Friday”

If we take kaizen to heart we would be challenged to make this week’s proposals better than last week’s - more detail, more references, whatever might be of more use to the businesses I’m delivering them too.

Next, the question becomes, “How can I know that what I’m doing this week is better than what I did last week?” With this question we’re getting to the foundation of kaizen. And there’s an elusive and important principle in the quality assurance that underpins kaizen: If you can’t measure it, you can’t control it.

To know which proposals and ideas perform better, I need to be able to measure their outcomes. This can be determined by follow-ups, questions I’m asked, and of course agreements and the all-important schedule of works that follows.

The very act of determining the important metrics for whatever process you’re trying to improve will help you point your business in the right direction, whether you’re trying to improve website performance or

reduce the amount of paper your office uses. Or if you’re trying to increase efficiencies this is where the true value of kaizen is really held - we can make incremental improvements week on week to achieve an objective. But to make the objective the initial goal is making the work unnecessarily hard - and potentially more likely to fail, or at the very least take longer to achieve.

Kaizen And Your Business

The reason Japan was able to become the manufacturer of the world’s highest-quality products after having been the worst was due to the fact that companies instilled the concept of kaizen in every employee. From entry level to the highest level of management, everyone in every manufacturing business was focused on making small improvements to their own process.

Employees were empowered to take action - and this has stayed the same ever since. For example, to this day virtually every employee has the power to shut down a Toyota assembly line when he or she finds something that’s not correct.

Making kaizen a part of your company culture gives your employees the autonomy and tools to make improvements and prevent errors. And, when you do this it has the added benefit of giving individuals a stake in the outcome of the business. Employees can take pride in knowing that they did their jobs this week a little better than last week.

In the current climate when so much is written about competitive edge and ‘being better’ in business - are there lessons we can learn from kaizen and apply to our own businesses? Small improvements will help the business achieve bigger success. So, rewarding people who make small improvements not only benefits the business, you’re also nurturing your staff and recognising the part that they play in your business success.

ConeX helps engineering and manufacturing businesses across the South West and beyond stay better connected. For more information and to enquire about membership visit: