4 - 10, 2011

A couple of Japanese engineers, on the way home from the office one day, stopped at the nearby watering hole. After downing a few local concoctions and talking over a few problems that life had thrown their way by way of work they started to say, well what can we do about it?

A similar scene takes place at innumerable locations on almost daily basis the world over. It starts as a bitch session and ends as a bitch session. You are supposed to cuss out your superiors, your colleagues, the political system, and whatever is the current flavor of the month. In countries which permit alcohol it is done over a couple of beers, in others where the alcoholic beverages are a no-no the session may take place over cups of coffee or tea, depending on the taste and budget. This is typically an auto psychotherapy session. By airing whatever has been eating the participants inside, they manage to feel lighter. The second benefit is a sense of bonding. By bitching about the one personality, may it be a system, a political personality, a power figure such as a boss, the participants vent out their feelings, cuss out the common enemy who has victimized them. By doing so, a sense of camaraderie or bonding is created. This strengthens the relationships among people. An hour or so, of such a session and the participants feel refreshed on the way home. An added, side benefit of this exercise is the business that is brought to the establishment where the session takes place.

On the other hand, the participants in this particular session were Japanese. After they had aired their feelings, they thought of the time spent as an investment. And, for every investment there should be a return. "If we are facing problems, there must be solutions to these problems," they thought. Even if we make a small improvement towards the problems, it would still be an improvement. They decided to take their way of thinking back to the factory to their other teammates to discuss and to mull it over.

Next day when they went back and discussed with their teammates, their colleagues they got a positive hearing. They were spending a major portion of the day together. If they could make the work place better, if they could churn out a better product, if they could improve the profitability of the company all of the colleagues were going to be affected in a better manner. The lives of everyone will be improved. This philosophy was soon taken over and one of the bellwether companies touting this philosophy is Toyota Automotive Company, and the name of this chosen philosophy is Kaizen. This philosophy was adopted very successfully in its auto manufacturing plant and soon its automotives were beating the pants off big, clunky, gas guzzling American automobiles.

The same way of thinking later on was imported by the Americans and rest of the developed world and adopted in their workplaces. It was first noticed in late to middle seventies and fully adopted in eighties. Initially in West, it was known by the name of "World Class Manufacturing" and later on, the Japanese name of Kaizen was adopted.


It is made of two Japanese words Kai, i.e. Change and Zen i.e. good. The word Kaizen means Good Change or simply put, Kaizen means Continuous Improvement. The improvement may be small, infinitesimal, but it should be measureable, and, it should be improvement. It should be in the right direction. It should involve all the stakeholders, including the workers. Instead of a top down approach where the top management forces ideas down the line, which are resisted by the frontline workers, this starts with the frontline workers who feel they have a stake in the well being of the company. The focus is the customer. The aim is to shorten the lead times, or, as it is said in some industries, the turnaround time.


No! Although it originated in the manufacturing industry but it is very much applicable in all kinds of industries, such as software, banking, healthcare, transportation etc. It becomes a way of life.


Typically, five pillars are cited for it which are:

1. Teamwork
2. Personal discipline
3. Improved morale
4. Quality circles
5. Suggestions for improvement

Adoption of Kaizen leads to better teamwork, improved discipline, and better morale. This is done through involving the personnel in contributing to the wellbeing of the company through the implementation of quality circles, when they can see that some of the ideas, which were worthwhile and generated by the teams were actually implemented. This leads to a sense of ownership among the employees and also leads to unleashing of creativity among employees. Otherwise, a sense of disconnect prevails which is not beneficial to the well being of the company.


One of the ways of adopting the Kaizen philosophy is defining of Kaizen events. These are milestones, which the company wants to achieve and is finding difficult to achieve. These targets may be companywide goals or departmental goals. Once these goals are achieved these need to be celebrated.

Consider an organization which has traversed quite a bit of distance on its life cycle. As the industry matures, as the organization gets set in its ways, the managers become more conscious of their turfs and shy of trying out new ideas. They become protective of the status quo. They in fact become the status quo and begin to resist any idea that may originate from anywhere other than their own department. Taking credit for ideas becomes the game in town. This leads to barriers, which are erected within the organization, which hinders the free flow of information. Work, even official work is done as a personal favor. What results is a dysfunctional organization. New ideas are neither generated nor practiced.


If these barriers are not brought down, and if all of the stakeholders are not effectively pulling in the same direction the organization suffers. There is a loss of productivity and profitability. One way is to do what has been known as intrapreneuring.

This is done by creating teams consisting of people belonging to different departments chosen from all over the organization. These teams are tasked to perform together, to achieve some specific goal, within a specific time. This is also called a Kaizen blitz or a Kaizen event.

There may be more than a single task and similarly more than a single team, which is asked to achieve some important goal. A US company that I worked with once, used to call this exercise the Nut Cracker Exercise, as the goals were supposed to be inordinately difficult. The teams had the management support and were given all kind of help. The particular team, which managed to achieve the task was given a Nut Cracker Doll and some monetary award. The Nut Cracker Doll was based on the famous Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite Opera. This helped the people to mingle across the departments, discuss the problems and it also helped to lower the guards which at times cause the problems themselves.


* First standardize the operation. Figure out what is required and what is extraneous. The extraneous elements are eliminated.

* Measure the standardized operation. The measurement takes place in terms of time or any other measureable unit such as customers served, units in inventory etc.

* Gauge the measurement against the requirements. Is it serving the purpose? What are the weak links?

* Innovate the process and procedure to meet the requirements and increase the productivity.

* Standardize Again to the New Improved Process.

* Start All Over Again, and Continue Ad Infinitum.

If we look at the well known companies which have adopted Kaizen, some of them are Sony, Toyota, Emerson Electric Co, Ford Motor Company, Societe Generale (Bank), Fidelity Investments (Fund Manager), Lockheed Martin, Canon, Amazon (website). This is just a small number. The actual number is much higher.

The Kaizen does not look for big breakthroughs. On other hand, it looks for small but continuous improvements. The individual departments/ personnel are beckoned to search ways to improve their way of working, to improve their methods through discussions, suggestions. The suggestions found worthy of implementation are implemented. This is done on continuous basis.

These small continuous improvements lead to really large improvements overtime. In fact, the Kaizen management way of thinking is really close to Islamic thought process. I am reminded of a well known Hadith in which the holy prophet S.A.W. emphasized the importance of continuous improvement by saying that anyone whose today is not better than yesterday is in Loss.