Friday, December 12, 2008


Kaizen, a Japanese management philosophy, promises big rewards through continuous incremental change.

As the dapper Japanese rises from his chair, there is pin-drop silence in the conference hall. The corporate types around me regard him with eyes glazed with adulation. Like them, I expect the august founder of Kaizen, a management philosophy, to say something profound. Instead, he recounts a ridiculously funny story. He waits for the guffaws to die down before pointing out gently: "To adopt Kaizen means to be ever willing to change, for if you don't, you surrender yourself and your market to those who do."

That's fairly simple, only that we need Masaaki Imai to bring that home to us. For almost two decades now, he has been in the business of making slothful industries around the world commit to 'continuous improvement through change'. Or, in short, to Kaizen.

In his Kaizen: the Key to Japan's Competitive Success published in 1986 that introduced Kaizen to the Western corporate world, Masaaki Imai defined it as: "a means of continuing improvement in personal life, home life, social life, and working life. At the workplace, Kaizen means continuing improvement involving everyone — managers and workers alike. The Kaizen business strategy involves everyone in an organization working together to make improvements without large capital investments."

The operative phrase here is 'without large capital investments'. Instead of sinking more money in buying machinery or running them for a longer duration, Kaizen veers an organization towards paying attention to small but significant details. Managers are encouraged to improve the efficiency of existing Infrastructure instead of investing in more of the same. "And that," says Imai, "can happen only if you are familiar with every inch of your gemba (workplace)".

In essence, that translates into something of a corporate 'back to basics' philosophy. Gemba is where the product is actually manufactured, which could mean the assembly line in a manufacturing plant or the place where employees interact with customers in the service sector. It is "the place where the real work is done", as Imai likes to put it. Yet, most companies pay far more attention to sales, marketing, financial management and product development.

This thought is expressed in Imai's best selling sequel, Gembakaizen:"Gembakaizen is when Kaizen is used in the gemba, for which there are three basic steps—pay attention to housekeeping, eliminate waste and standardize," says he.

The emphasis on the gemba often leads to a misconception that Kaizen is relevant only for lower-rung employees. Rather, it is a strategy that begins and ends with people. It requires the leadership to ensure sustained improvement to continuously improve the company's ability to meet expectations of high quality, low cost products and on-time delivery.

Listening to Imai, I could not help but notice the relevance of Kaizenin areas of life other than the workplace. You merely need to assume your home/relationship to be the gemba. Also, as Imai says, and Heraclitus said before him, nothing is permanent but change. Each individual deserves to improve for the better continually. An ancient Japanese saying expresses similar sentiments: "If a man has not been seen for three days, his friends should take a good look at him to see what changes have befallen him."

So why not work to make that change, whether at work or at home, a positive one?


1. Discard conventional ideas.
2. Think of how to do it, not why it cannot be done.
3. Do not make excuses. Question current practices.
4. Do not seek perfection. Do it right away, even if only for 50% of the target.
5. If you make a mistake, correct it immediately.
6. Do not spend money for Kaizen, use your wisdom.
7. Wisdom emerges in the face of adversity
8. To seek the root cause of all your problems, ask 'Why?' five times.
9. Seek the wisdom of ten people rather than the knowledge of one.
10. Kaizen ideas are infinite.


Masaaki 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 Successpublished 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 Kaizenin 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.