When I was a young man participating in industry trade shows around the country, I noticed many Japanese people in attendance. Someone told me that while the American culture is highly innovative, the Japanese culture is excellent at efficiency and execution. They came to this country to get ideas and then produce similar products with higher quality and lower cost.
Later, I discovered that an American quality and productivity pioneer, W. Edwards Deming, showed the Japanese how to improve their quality and efficiency in a systematic way. To this day, Systems Thinking permeates the Japanese business culture and they have created many outstanding companies based on this discipline.
Kaizen – Continuous Improvement
Deming taught the Japanese a logical approach to problem-solving, later called the Deming Cycle or Plan-Do-Check-Act, a foundation for continuous improvement.
The Japanese term for “continuous improvement” is kaizen—making incremental improvements to eliminate the waste of a process that adds cost without adding value.
“Kaizen teaches individual skills for working effectively in small groups, solving problems, documenting and improving processes, collecting and analyzing data, and self-managing within peer groups. . . . Kaizen is a total philosophy that strives for perfection. . .” (Jeffrey Liker, The Toyota Way, 24).
Below are other Japanese terms used in process improvement and adopted by some American companies.
- Sensei: an expert; a teacher who has mastered the subject
- Kaizen: continuous improvement
- Nemawashi: decide slowly, implement rapidly
- Hansei: reflection (thinking)
- Hoshin Kanri: quality planning
- Genchi genbutsu: personal involvement-go to the place to see what’s going on
- Jidoka: built-in quality
- Muda: waste
- Mura: unevenness of workflow
- Muri: overburdening people
- Heijunka: leveling the workload
- Poka-Yoke: to avoid inadvertent errors, mistake proofing
- Takt Time: the time required to complete one job at the pace of customer demand
When you implement Systems Thinking, your world changes. Your business runs better. Your customers are happier, and YOU make more money.
We first taught the Japanese; then they taught us. Kaizen is now a fundamental principle and strategy in American business. It should be in every country and in businesses of all sizes and types. Most importantly, it should be a fundamental strategy in YOUR business.