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Harish Jose


Karakuri Kaizen

Harnessing the boundless ingenuity of the human mind

Published: Tuesday, February 25, 2020 - 12:03

As readers of my columns know, I am an ardent student of the Toyota Production System (TPS). One of the core philosophies of TPS is kaizen, often translated from Japanese as “continuous improvement.” It is the idea that one should continuously find ways to eliminate nonvalue-adding activities, and in the process develop oneself and others to get better at kaizen. The idea of kaizen begetting more kaizen.

Kaizen is a human capital enrichment philosophy. As Eiji Toyoda, Toyota Motor Corp.’s president from 1967 to 1982, said, “It is people that make things, and so people must be developed before work can start.”

One of the ways Toyota inspires its employees to nurture their creativity is karakuri kaizen. It is said that during the early 17th century, during the Edo period, European clocks were introduced in Japan. This sparked a wide curiosity among Japanese craftsmen. The idea of developing motion mechanisms with elaborate sets of springs and gears was new to them. This led to the development of karakuri ningyō, or mechanized dolls. These were dolls that moved around and did several tasks such as bringing tea to a guest and then bringing it back to the owner, or climbing a set of stairs. There was even a magician doll that performed a cups and balls routine.

What set the karakuri dolls of Japan separate from the European clockwork mechanism was the humanization of the dolls. A doll was created with high importance placed on its physical features such as face and movement of head and limbs, in an effort to the make the doll lifelike. Aesthetics was of utmost importance. All the mechanisms were cleverly hidden beneath clothing so that no mechanism was visible from outside. All the motion was achieved using simple springs, gravity, and gears. No external power source was used. The doll moved around as if it were alive. The karakuri dolls brought fascinated delight to their spectators.

How does this all relate to the manufacturing floor? One of the challenges that is often posed to an organization is to increase its production. This is often tackled by either hiring more employees or by using automation. Automation is highly attractive even though it is sometimes cost prohibitive. It might make sense that the nonvalue-added activities such as transportation and repeated motions could be done by a robot. Most modern manufacturing operations are riddled with automation. However, this comes with its own problems. The main one is that the automation, rather than employees, becomes the focus of manufacturing. The high implementation cost for often large equipment becomes a monument that everything must work around. It is an expensive way to ensure that the status quo is maintained. To get the most out of the high expense, the new machine is run around the clock increasing the unwanted inventory while it raises the cost of the operation.

This is where karakuri kaizen comes in. Karakuri, as explained before, is a low-cost automation that does not utilize external power resources. It is comparatively small and works solely based on gravity, counterweights, springs, gears, etc. The key point of karakuri kaizen is that it should inspire more kaizen. Generally, a challenge is posed to the operators to come up with a means to remove unwanted strain and motion, and to eliminate waste. Normally, this would be a task where a heavy part(s) is lifted and moved to another location, or where a part is turned around and operated on.

The first impulse is to automate the process. This would require an expensive piece of equipment. Karakuri kaizen focuses on solving the problem on hand with what is readily available and using minimal resources. This might be construed as pushing to minimize capital expenditure. However, the most important part is that the operators are being challenged to use their wit and brains. As Fujio Cho, Toyota Motor Corp.’s president from 1999 to 2005, said, “Human ingenuity has no bounds.” The karakuri mechanism does not become the center of focus. Instead, the operator does. The mechanism generally is such that it can easily be modified if needed, and even replaced with another karakuri. Unlike a heavy piece of machinery, a karakuri does not become a monument. It is built specifically to achieve a purpose, and thus it is highly customized. It is also designed in-house. The “challenge” portion is a core ingredient for kaizen.

When Toyota started car manufacturing, it did not have a lot of capital or resources. The company modified existing machinery to achieve its needs. Toyota leaders first used what they had in-house before going outside for solutions. They relied on their employees to come up with ingenious solutions to their problems. This meant that the solutions were made specifically for their problems. Generally, when equipment or software was purchased, they weren’t always made specifically for the need of the customer. The customer often had to work with what was offered. Toyota had to come up with ingenious solutions to solve its problems without spending much capital. The only capital it could come up with was human capital. Even after Toyota became successful, this mindset was maintained.

As Toyota veteran Kazuhiko Furui explained:
“Toyota has tried to use as little external power as possible in its car manufacturing since its foundation. Karakuri kaizen is one of the Toyota Way values. Karakuri is a mechanism that uses gravity, springs, and gears instead of external power sources to manipulate objects. A karakuri does not always work well on the first try. If something breaks, we rebuild it, trying continuously to make it better, always reforming the mechanism. For us, when we succeed, there is a great sense of achievement: “We did it!’ And that brings a drive to try making yet another mechanism. Developing karakuri is also about developing people.”

Final words

What is the point of kaizen? The simple answer is often to make things better. If kaizen does not beget more kaizen, and if it does not improve the thinking of the people involved, then it is missing the meaning of kaizen. Kaizen should lead employees to develop their abilities to see and identify waste, and come up with ways to eliminate waste. It should lead them to second-order thinking, where they don’t just consider, “What is my goal,” but also ask, “What is the purpose of my goal?” This means that the employee becomes part of the meta-system rather than just doing what they are told.

I will finish with some fine words from the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant:
“The human being can either be merely trained, broken in, mechanically instructed, or really enlightened. One trains dogs and horses, and one can also train human beings. Training, however, does little; what matters above all is that they learn to think. The aim should be the principles from which all actions spring.”

First published Jan. 5, 2020, on Harish’s Notebook.


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years of experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject-matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments, and publishes frequently on his blog Harish’s Notebook.