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John Hunter

Quality Insider

An Interview With Masaaki Imai

The father of kaizen shares thoughts on gemba, Deming, Western companies, and more

Published: Friday, November 30, 2012 - 17:23

Masaaki Imai is a consultant, author, and founder of the Kaizen Institute. The second edition of his book, Gemba Kaizen (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2012), was published in May. He agreed to an interview with The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog.

The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog (TDI): Did you work with W. Edwards Deming?

Masaaki Imai: I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Deming. I can say that Deming’s teachings were great revelations to Japanese management, which built many kaizen practices in Japan based on his principles.

TDI: Deming saw mobility of top management as a disease of Western management. The turnover creates a focus on short-term results while deemphasizing long-term thinking and often results in executives that have little experience with the organization they are suppose to help lead.

Imai: To ensure the prosperity of a firm should be a long-term strategy, and the turnover of key managers should be taken into account from the standpoint of long-term consideration and not from the monthly or quarterly flavors.

TDI: What do you see as the proper role of control charts today? Lean efforts seem to give less attention to control charts than Deming did.

Imai: Control charts are one of the statistical tools for solving quality-related problems. Under the lean system, any tools that are required for solving problems are used. However, there are various nonstatistical tools that have been typically developed by lean companies, notably by Toyota, for minimizing variability in production, such as standardization, introduction of takt time, synchronization, and shortening the total production lead time, which I am fond of referring to as “nonstatistical tools.”

TDI: Some people are worried that standardization means they will be stripped of the ability to innovate or use their creativity. This isn’t the case, but some still worry about it. Do you have a suggestion for how to address these concerns when introducing the concept of standardization in an organization?

Imai: The standard is not writ on the stone. The definition of the standard is that it is the best way to do the job for now. It should be regarded as a next step to make further improvement.

TDI: I find the huge pay taken by senior executives at many U.S. and some European companies so excessive that they are inherently disrespectful to the others in the organization (and disrespectful to the owners of the organization). Do you have an opinion on the current level of senior executive pay?

Imai: I have a theory that among the large Western companies (mostly American), the higher an executive is promoted, the more wisdom is lost, and by the time he or she reaches the top becomes a complete idiot. Certainly they do not deserve the outrageous salary.

TDI: What do you see as important areas for managers to focus on today? Are there specific management practices that you find being applied less well across many organizations?

Imai: I believe that management should focus on two particular areas. One is gemba (shop floor), and the other is customer (not the shareholder).

TDI: In Gemba Kaizen you encourage the use of targets, in one example reducing the setup time for a machine from six hours to 30 minutes over six months. You explain that workers must be given the proper training to achieve the targets.

How do you suggest protecting against the risks targets bring? Certainly we don’t want to be so focused on meeting a target that when, using the previous example, the setup time is reduced to one hour but efforts to reduce the time further are continually unsuccessful. If the target is given too high a priority, we may lead people to sacrifice something else to reach the target, perhaps sacrifice safety to speed things up, or perhaps a change that will let us reduce setup time but results in worse results as the machine is being used.

Imai: These are the types of questions raised by those who have never been in a position to realize these targets.

TDI: What is your opinion on the state of management practice for service organizations vs. manufacturing organizations? Do you think service organizations, by and large, are behind manufacturing organization in adopting the management ideas of Deming and those you discuss in Gemba Kaizen?

Imai: I am beginning to see a large-scale introduction of various management tools, philosophies, and practices in the service sectors and have a high hope that it will become a global trend.

This article was originally published by the W. Edwards Deming Institute.

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About The Author

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John Hunter

John Hunter, CEO of CuriousCat.com, authored Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability (Leanpub, 2012). He authors two management blogs (Curious Cat Management Improvement blog, The W. Edwards Deming Institute blog) and other blogs on topics including investing, technology, and travel. Hunter’s career has been spent helping organizations increase customer delight using continual management improvement strategies. Since 1995 he has used the internet to improve the results of management improvement efforts in various roles including as a software development program manager. Through Curious Cat, Hunter manages more than 30 websites.