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Ryan E. Day


When in Japan...

Training tips from a culture that is the gemba

Published: Thursday, October 1, 2015 - 16:15

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I can tell you all about the California coast, its cultural and economic dynamics, my favorite hideaway beaches and eateries, and I can attest to the wisdom of never turning your back to the surf. I know these things because I've lived in The Golden State most of my life, but I've never ever been to Japan. All I know about its culture is what I’ve gleaned from the news, B movies about giant radioactive lizards, and books that espouse kaizen culture. Woefully inadequate insight when trying to understand and implement lean and kaizen training.

What is kaizen?

According to the Kaizen Institute “Kaizen is the practice of continuous improvement.” Kaizen was originally introduced to the West by Masaaki Imai in his book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success (McGraw-Hill Education, 1986). Today, kaizen is recognized worldwide as an important pillar of an organization’s long-term competitive strategy.”

Kaizen is continuous improvement that is based on certain guiding principles:
• Good processes bring good results
• Go see for yourself to grasp the current situation (gemba)
• Speak with data, manage by facts
• Take action to contain and correct root causes of problems
• Work as a team
Kaizen is everybody’s business

One of the most notable features of kaizen is that big results come from many small changes accumulated over time. However, this has been misunderstood to mean that kaizen equals small changes. In fact, kaizen means everyone is involved in making improvements, all the time. Although the majority of changes may be small, the greatest impact may come from those that are led by senior management as transformational projects, or by cross-functional teams as kaizen events.

“I’m beginning to feel that continual improvement is not a good enough translation, because it does not carry forth this tremendous self-discipline and the commitment that everybody has when doing kaizen,” says Masaaki Imai, founder of the Kaizen Institute. “So, I now have a new interpretation of the word kaizen: I say kaizen is everyday improvement, everybody improvement, and everywhere improvement.”

Born in Tokyo, Japan, Imai worked at the Japan Productivity Center and traveled internationally with Shoichiro Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno. Imai founded the Kaizen Institute in 1985 to help companies implement the practice of kaizen and the various systems and tools known today as lean management.

“For many companies in the 1980s, kaizen was a brand-new term, and lean thinking was only just beginning to be kicked around and incorporated,” says Christian Wolcott, a director at the Institute. “We help leadership figures understand what the purpose and significance behind kaizen is and, equally important, what that looks like in an organization that is truly committed to continuous improvement and the positive effects on operations.”

Over the years, as lean thinking—or the study of the Toyota Way—became popular in manufacturing, and more companies began to get on board and realize benefits, whole new sectors became interested in kaizen. Healthcare, education, public service, retail—whether manufacturing or providing a service, there is a burgeoning interest in how to develop a culture of continuous improvement.

What is kaizen culture?

One of the things Imai’s Institute has learned during its 30 years in business is the difference between methods and culture. Methods can, should, and must be taught. Culture is quite a bit trickier. Like understanding life on the coast of California—you can learn about tide charts, coastal fog, and migrant workers, but it’s another thing altogether when you go to the coastal gemba and experience the culture for yourself.

“The advent of the need for tours [to Japan] was to promote kaizen itself,” explains Wolcott. “One of the companies that best personifies kaizen is, of course, Toyota, which is headquartered in Toyota City, Japan. Many of its suppliers are also there, so this is sort of the fountainhead. Toyota has not only been doing this the longest, it has also been very good and forthright about allowing access to see it. Allowing us to actually go to some of the sites and talk with them to understand the answers to, ‘How does this work, how is it rolled out, how is it done in a daily practice, in a strategy, and how is it used in problem solving?’”

The significance of experiencing a culture steeped in kaizen is underscored when considered in a training context.

“On-site tours in Japan allow those who are interested access to this culture in a live setting,” says Wolcott. “It’s such an advantage to step into it and see how it works, to understand the backdrop, history, and relevance of kaizen. Do you have to go to Japan to see lean? In all honesty—no. You can certainly learn methods and tools and read case study after case study. Is there a huge benefit to training in Japan? Definitely. There is a potent difference between companies that are learning and companies that do it without thinking about it.

“For instance, on one of our recent tours where [Toyota] builds Priuses, we were on a catwalk where we could see the assembly lines and also the area where they conduct line-shift meetings,” Wolcott continues. “In that area was a poster that read ‘4S’ along the top, with writing in Japanese underneath. Our translator said the writing was ‘Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize.’ I asked our Toyota guide what happened to the 5th S—Sustain? Our guide kindly explained that sustaining wasn’t ever an issue, and that’s pretty much unheard of in the West. That kind of culture just has to be experienced. That kind of confidence in their system is something you can see.”

The ‘aha!’ moment

The 4S vs. 5S example is anecdotal of companies trying to synthesize lean and kaizen into their daily workplace. Benchmarking and checking boxes only go so far in developing a company’s own culture, but seeing can lead to believing.

“Going to Japan is always helpful and developmental, and for some companies these tours are cathartic,” reveals Wolcott “Most of our participants are department heads, managers, and senior leaders of companies ranging from SMEs to quite large household names. The chance to interface them with the companies that we visit and have a Q&A discussion is wonderful. Going to gemba in Japan is a rich experience. Our participants come away seeing new opportunities for their companies and even for themselves as leaders within their company.”

Indeed, training in a country where many companies have been practicing lean for so long that it’s not even called lean, gives new meaning to gemba.

There are four purposes for continuous improvement: easier, better, faster, cheaper—and they appear in that order of priority.
—Shigeo Shingo


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.