February 20, 2009

Kaizen: ur doin it rong!

In an attempt to try to write relevant things that people might want to actually read*, I go back to the world of GCSE Business Studies and forward to the end of the Apocalypse Recession.

The philosophy of work in Japanese business is very different to that in Western workplaces. Particularly prevalent throughout the recovery from WWII was a philosophy known as kaizen, in which the company focuses on the continuous improvement of its processes.

Let us look at the example as applied to an early pioneer of the system: Toyota:

  1. A series of processes are in place for the production of cars.
  2. An employee, at any level, identifies an inefficiency.
  3. The process is removed as soon as possible.
  4. The process is restarted and the system is more efficient.
  5. ....
  6. PROFIT!!!
  7. Kill any member of staff who makes clichéd South Park references.
  8. Goto 1.

This worked very well, as it meant that not only were all employees were involved but also the incremental improvements often cost very little to implement. It helped Japanese firm stay competitive against American competitors, whose big investments were often targeted at putting them ahead but by the time they were finished found themselves still behind and at a greater cost.

However, kaizen isn’t itself perfect, as it only works under certain conditions…

The process must be right in the first place

Suppose you have a process which, by design, is inefficient in some way. It may not be possible to remove this inefficiency by incremental improvements to the existing process, because there is something fundamentally wrong with it in the first place.

As an example, suppose you have to send a task to an area that does a lot of duplicate work, but to remove that duplicate work would require a big change in several other areas. It may not be possible to remove that duplication incrementally, and so a new process will be needed instead.

The input of each member of the process must be given equal value

Kaizen was designed to involve everyone, from the people at the very bottom of the pile to the big suits upstairs via the consultants, the canteen and the lab rats. If the lowest-ranked employee spots something, it must be considered with equal value as a suggestion coming from the CEO. They will have two different viewpoints and two different perceptions.

Kaizen cannot and does not work if employee suggestions are dismissed without consideration on the basis on their rank. This leads into…

Change must not be resisted

Suppose somebody comes up with an idea that somebody above them doesn’t like. It might be suggesting that breaks are longer, to give employees time to recover from manual labour before the next shift. It might be suggesting somebody does work allocated to somebody else. It might mean creating a new job for somebody. It might mean doing something that is just generally unpopular.

Change scares people, not just in a business sense but in life generally. Remember poll tax? That scared people, and now we have the monstrosity that is council tax instead. You try and stick wind turbines up and most people are all for it unless it’s within 2000 miles of their back garden.

Kaizen is all about change, and it has to be embraced as a good thing (otherwise it wouldn’t be happening, which isn’t generally true of life) otherwise the fundamental idea of continuous improvement cannot work if people are avoiding a change.

Change must be fast

Kaizen is not about reinventing the wheel, but making it turn a bit quicker. Given the number of middle managers and consultants in the UK, actually getting it work is difficult because of the layers of bureaucracy that exist. Going through committees and then subcommittees and then working committees and taking-time-off committees and having-a-think-about-it committees and phone-a-friend committees… by the time the idea actually gets approved, it may be too late, or it may need a number of changes.

This links into the above, in that bureaucracy is there because of a fear of change. Additionally, a key idea of kaizen is that the problem is discussed when it is found, not days or weeks later, because in that time the inefficiency still exists. Again to link, this may be that the lowest-scale employees are not trusted to come up with ideas and they therefore have to be vetted by senior management, essentially devaluing the opinion.

I hope this entry has not been useful, because it’s mostly complete rubbish. I just had time over the course of a few days to kill.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Jennysis

    Change is very scary, but it’s gotta happen when it needs to. :) I hope you feel at least a little bit better now. x

    20 Feb 2009, 12:25


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