Tuesday, July 21, 2015


It's interesting how the Japanese took to Kaizen so enthusiastically.  Japan Today ran an article listing the ten words that westerners most commonly associate with the Japanese. It is even more interesting when compared with a list of traits associated with Americans;

The Japanese are described as;

  • Polite, Kind, Respectful and Shy. 
  • Clean and formal.
  • Punctual, Intelligent, hard working and group minded.
  • Culturally monolithic

Americans are associated with being;

  • Time conscious, energetic achievers.
  • Individualistic, independent, self-reliant and  competitive.
  • Materialistic and internationally naive (Self absorbed)

There are some interesting  similarities and contrasts here, particularly with respect to Japanese group mindedness. Americans understand team effort, but their sense of competitiveness is highly individual. Japanese win in teams. America's heroes are typically solo.

In communication, Americans tend to be more direct, desiring eye contact but wanting "personal space". They are also friendly, but mobile, so the duration of their relationships tend to be elastic.

Lean is about resource management - big piles of unused stuff are a sign of waste. Traditional manufacturing techniques emphasized speed and individual, high volume production rather than optimizing the whole process by talking with other members of the group and helping them do better.

All this helps explain why the Japanese took so well to Kaizen. Lean is an unselfish group activity. It is also why management attitude is very important in lean cultures and Kaizen embodies essential elements of Japanese culture. The strangest thing is that Kaizen's roots are the outgrowth of techniques "foreign" to Japan.

After the armistice, Allied occupation forces brought in American experts to help rebuild Japanese industry. The Civil Communications Section (CCS) developed a Management Training Program which included statistical control methods. The course was developed and taught by Homer Sarasohn and Charles Protzman in 1949 and 1950. Sarasohn recommended that W. Edwards Deming be brought in to provide further training in Statistical Methods.

The Economic and Scientific Section (ESS) group was tasked with improving Japanese management skills. In 1951 they produced a film called "Good Change in 4 Steps" (Kaizen eno Yon Dankai) and the term Kaizen was born.

Two significant aspects of Kaizen are its scaleability and durability.  It might be better called Eternal Progression. It can be applied daily, to all types and sizes of problems, across an entire organization. In that respect it is more like a religious philosophy than a management technique, particularly with its goal of continually trying to achieve a perfectly waste free process. This mirrors Japanese devotion to cleanliness and work and a company's life long commitment to the employee. The game of Kaizen applies everywhere and never ends.

On the other hand, there nothing which can't be made worse with a sufficient application of self righteousness. That is where Design Thinking, with it's emphasis on Empathic Listening, shines.

DT is an innocent, unselfish process, something which everyone can learn and apply, if they are willing to check their egos at the door.

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