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Jon Miller

Six Sigma

Kaizen by Inspiration is Not Kaizen

Kaizen a la Taiichi Ohno Sensei

Published: Thursday, November 5, 2009 - 05:00

I was flipping through some Japanese books on sayings and speeches given by Taiichi Ohno looking for inspiration for a new article when I found the following passage:

“Within the Toyota Production System, a lack of ability to do kaizen becomes a critical flaw. Does this mean that if you do kaizen that is the Toyota Production System? In fact the reverse is true.”

Taiichi Ohno explains that it is the type of kaizen that you do when the survival of your company depends on doing kaizen that is the most important kaizen. As the term kaizen becomes more popular, Ohno observes that people do kaizen that don’t really need to be done. He calls this “omoitsuki kaizen” (or in English, “kaizen by inspiration” or “hit upon an idea kaizen.”)

This is quite counter intuitive. Isn’t kaizen all about people’s ideas, finding things to improve, and inspiration? Ohno would say, “Oh, no.” He gives examples of inspiration kaizen, such as “we can automate this” or “we fixed this” where in fact, money was spent to improve something without proving that it contributed to profit. In fact, these types of kaizen may increase output or efficiency but the money spent may actually increase cost.

Bluntly, Taiichi Ohno points out that productivity improvements that don't result in actual whole number headcount reduction (1 person instead of 0.5 persons) is a poor kaizen effort. The process may have changed, and it may have measurably improved, but unless we can show that it has reduced cost, it is a “stumbled upon kaizen” and not a step toward survival. Ohno is not advocating cost cutting through cutting headcount. Toyota used kaizen all the way in creating the Toyota Production System because they had to find their way in the dark. Many companies try to kaizen their way to the Toyota Production System and use headcount reduction as a cost driver. Taiichi Ohno warns us against following this path lightly.

Ultimately Taiichi Ohno places the responsibility on leadership to challenge employees to use their creativity toward “life or death kaizen.” This is kaizen that is critically important for the company to continue its operation, rather than “kaizen by inspiration,” which is directionless and of questionable bottom-line merit. At the time when Taiichi Ohno gave this speech, both kaizen and the Toyota Production System were becoming fashionable and many companies were adopting these practices without really understanding the life and death struggles the Toyota Motor Co. faced while building their system. His words are worth reflecting on even today.

Some have labeled improvements based on inspiration rather than top-level goals as “popcorn kaizen.” Perhaps this is because popcorn is light, plentiful, and tends to fly out of the pan and onto the floor as the corn is being popped. In my experience, it's not good to completely discourage inspiration and popcorn kaizen. Taiichi Ohno is absolutely right, and kaizen should not be primarily inspiration-based. It should also be policy-based, target-driven, and meaningful enough for leadership to take an active interest in supporting it. Both top-down and bottom-up kaizen are needed.

Sandwich kaizen, anyone?

© Gemba Research LLC


About The Author

Jon Miller’s picture

Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.


Popcorn Kaizen !

Dear Mr.Miller,
We sincerely appreciate your insight ! Modern organisations to understand the purpose and intent of kaizen basics. For organisation's Goals Kaizens to come up thro' employees ! Other way round is fixing the Target for Number of Kaizens which will lead to more Popcorn Kaizens !!!!!:-)
So let all the Kaizen Implementors and facilitators focus on Effectiveness than numbers !!!


Very interesting insight! The spirit of Kaizen is applied but the effect is not enough to get practical results...
I think that this approach could be applied to the continuous improvement in Daily Life: Some times we could follow the spirit of continuous improvement without taking concrete and relevant actions.

Great Stuff!

Hello Mr. Miller:

Please, please keep writing article for Quality Digest. Your experience, insight and thinking about TPS, Kaizen, etc. is vaulable to me (and hopefully all readers.)

Thank you,

Dirk van Putten