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by Laura Smith

Masaaki Imai is revered as the father of kaizen, the Japanese methodology of continuous improvement. Kaizen emphasizes continuous improvement in all levels of an organization, starting with the shop floor (gemba in Japanese). Imai founded Cambridge Corp. in 1962, where he operated as a consultant to top Japanese companies. He established the Kaizen Institute, based in Austin, Texas, in 1986 to help introduce kaizen concepts to Western companies. The methodology has since become quite popular among U.S. executives. Imai is the author of nine books dealing with kaizen and related management topics. Here, he discusses the history, evolution and future of kaizen.


QD: Kaizen has a long and successful history in Japan. Can you explain its roots and how it's evolved there?

Imai: Kaizen is a Japanese word that means improvement. The word itself has been used in Japan for many years as part of the daily vocabulary. However, since the middle of the 20th century, the word acquired new meaning among industrial companies in Japan. It came to represent the practice of improving by removing waste and involving employees, without spending much money. For the last 50 years, Japanese companies have used kaizen to create a competitive advantage. At its heart, kaizen allows companies to lower costs and improve product quality and variety. If sustained, kaizen is a powerful weapon against competitors.


QD: You've said that U.S. executives haven't used kaizen and just-in-time (JIT) techniques as effectively as other business leaders. Why do you think this is?

Imai: In my observations, there are two primary reasons for this. The first is that Western executives tend to believe that substantial improvement costs a lot of money. They seem to think that they must have the latest state-of-the-art technology and equipment to improve. I call this the innovative approach. Although innovation is indeed an important part of progress, it is only one component. Kaizen and standardization are equally important in sustaining a successful business. The West's slow adoption of kaizen is also due to a focus on short-term results. Western managers are often looking for the next "silver bullet" solution. Successful kaizen ultimately requires culture change, and this is something that Western managers are not often trained to do.


QD: In a perfect state, how should kaizen be used?

Imai: Kaizen requires a change in perception--a culture change--from everyone in the organization. Everyone must be able to identify all the different kinds of waste and work constantly toward eliminating it. Most important, it requires the support of top managers. Whenever kaizen isn't implemented successfully, 99 percent of the time it's because top management either doesn't understand it well or doesn't have the commitment to implement it correctly.


QD: Can kaizen also be used to improve employee morale?

Imai: Absolutely. Employee morale and reduced employee turnover are both byproducts of kaizen practice. Employees have the power and knowledge to change the way they work to make it more efficient, and this creates great satisfaction. Kaizen also helps companies compete because good people want to work for good companies. The beauty of kaizen is that if you make the commitment and do the hard work, there are no downsides.


QD: You've said that U.S. companies have neglected the manufacturing shop floor and focused too many resources on finance, marketing, R&D and engineering. Do you think this is still true?

Imai: I don't want to give the impression that marketing, engineering, R&D, etc., aren't important, but the point I have made is that many companies don't understand the importance of gemba, or where value is added to the product. For a manufacturing company, this is the shop floor. For a service company, this is where the customer interacts with the company, and sometimes where back-office customer support functions are performed. Customers want to pay only for this value-added work, not for all of the overhead, transport and internal support services of a company. Although these support functions are necessary, the cost of these items should be minimized to provide the highest quality at the lowest cost possible.


QD: Can you explain a bit more about gemba and how it's used in Japan and elsewhere?

Imai: In Japan, gemba is regarded as one of the most sacred responsibilities of management, as it is where customer satisfaction takes place. Because Western managers don't usually focus on gemba, it isn't an exaggeration to say that gemba is the last frontier for Western managers. One of the keys to kaizen success is top management's intimate knowledge of gemba. Kaizen will not work unless the leaders go into the workplace to observe work being done. I can always tell a successful company from a bad one just by observing the gemba. This is why kaizen starts with gemba and why all other departments and processes should be designed to support it.


QD: Do you think that U.S. companies have improved their kaizen techniques over the years? How could they further improve?

Imai: Many kaizen systems have been born out of practices and not theories or technologies. One of the most important axioms of kaizen is, "Do it, and do it now in gemba." It is a process of learning by doing. First, managers must make good examples and then provide opportunities for rank-and-file employees to practice. It's very important to not look for that "silver bullet" all of the time. Very rarely will a piece of software or an expensive new machine turn a company around. The constant dedication to first-time quality and the removal of waste is difficult but essential in today's economic environment. A flavor-of-the-month initiative or innovation is not sufficient.


QD: How do you see the quality movement changing in five years? In 20 years?

Imai: In the future, kaizen will be expanded from the shop floor to upstream management. This means that we must improve R&D, new product development and production preparation. There are great opportunities to expand kaizen principles and concepts into support areas, and there is a lot of hidden "fat" in the overhead of many organizations, especially large ones. There are also great opportunities for kaizen in service industries and health care.


QD: Executives have long been accused of being obsessed with growth. Is growth always a smart strategy for companies?

Imai: Just as resource conservation has become a concern for executives, we must realize that the days of never-ending growth are in the past. For almost all types of industry, we have too many companies competing in the same markets. And yet, we are seeing new companies joining them from emerging industrial countries. We need to develop new approaches to secure reasonable profits without growth. This means making better use of available resources, and this can be done by properly employing kaizen. The world's resources are being depleted, and it's common sense that growth without sustainability isn't possible in the long run. Unless we can all find a way to use renewable energy and materials and create sustainable systems, growth will slow down and eventually go into reverse. There is no other option.


QD: You advocate a use of JIT that's different from that practiced by most U.S. companies. Please explain the differences and what JIT means to you.

Imai: In the United States, JIT is primarily viewed as a tool to reduce lead time. In my view, JIT is a strategy to continuously remove waste from a system and drive down inventory. In Japan, JIT means the right time, the right amount and the right quality. Many Western companies claim to have implemented JIT without truly minimizing the waste in the system. They continue to overproduce with a relatively high defect rate, hold high quantities of inventory and run their production systems based on a forecast rather than on firm orders from customers. JIT is an ideal way to meet competitive challenges because it employs the fewest resources (e.g., manpower, materials, equipment, time and utility), with the lowest cost, for the maximum benefit. All companies that wish to embrace kaizen should regard it as their corporate strategy to introduce JIT so they can survive in the world of global competition.


About the author
Laura Smith is Quality Digest's assistant editor.