Kaizen, a Japanese management philosophy, promises big rewards through continuous incremental change. Indian businesses are now adopting Kaizen to emerge as global competitors
KAIZEN IS HOLISTIC MANAGEMENTMasaaki Imai, the founder of Kaizen was in India recently. Excerpts from an interview with him.
How and when did you develop Kaizen?
Kaizen is the product of the years I spent organizing study tours for Western businessmen wishing to set up commercial ventures in Japan. This brought me in close contact with management techniques that were hitherto unknown outside Japan, elements of which were, for instance, JIT (Just In Time) and TQC (Total Quality Control). My research and experiences resulted in Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success published in 1986 that introduced Kaizen to the world.
Your next step was to introduce 'Gembakaizen'. Why this emphasis on the gemba (workplace)?
The workplace is viewed with a great deal of reverence in Japan. The place where your product is being manufactured is sacred. It is common, for instance, to call a manager in Japan and be informed by his secretary that he is "in gemba" and therefore cannot be disturbed. It is almost as if he is in meditation or in the temple!
In India, as indeed in many Western firms, managers treat the gemba as lowly and fit only for lower level employees. So they sit in their fancy cabins and make decisions based on what I would call 'fabricated data'. I tell them to visit the gemba for a more hands-on experience.
How relevant is Kaizen for India?
This is a critical juncture for Indian manufacturers, what with cheap Chinese goods flooding the market. This is a good time for them to revert to Kaizen that changes the production system drastically by incorporating small but effective changes.
So is Kaizen only for manufacturing companies?
Not at all. It is equally applicable in the service sector. The Kaizen Institute in India is working closely with the Taj Group of hotels. We have also developed what I like to call 'the marriage of IT and JIT (Just In Time, a Kaizen technique)'. In fact, you may use Kaizen in your daily life for personal growth too. Kaizen is a philosophy of life and not just for business.
How can Kaizen be used for personal growth?
Kaizen says 'discard what is unnecessary'. This precept may be used in home and family life to mean a reduction of clutter, literally as well as emotionally. The next is 'put everything in order'. What use is tidying up if you don't make what you have accessible? Then the elimination of 'muda' (those factors that do not add value to your life) is also something we need to do to remove negative influences.
Is there any 'Zen' in Kaizen?
Well, if you mean Zen Buddhism, then the connection is only superficial. The practice of Kaizen requires strict discipline and austerity, something that is characteristic of Zen monasteries. Also, the leader of the group is all important, like the master in a Zen monastery. You could even call Kaizen a 'holistic' approach to management.
You speak about Kaizen being people-centric. How do you deal with the hierarchy that exists in every organization?
We deal with the hierarchy by eliminating it! Everybody is involved in the process of change. There is a definite shift towards more equality in organizations that employ Kaizen. A Mumbai-based company in India that had adopted Kaizen actually fixed a particular time everyday when for half an hour, everyone from senior managers to the lower staff collectively cleaned the gemba.
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