FACE TO FACE : Masaaki Imai – Kaizen guru

In business circles, Masaaki Imai generates the sort of reverence more usually accorded spiritual leaders. With his white hair and dignified bearing, he certainly looks the part of elder statesman – but pompous, he’s not.
The founder of business philosophy that has generated enthusiastic adherents world wide turns out to have quirky sense of humour. His narration of shaggy God story suggesting that even the Almighty might not live long enough to see adoption of Kaizen in Russia has him hooting with laughter.
Siberia could lead the way, he adds with grin. He’s off there shortly to talk with business people who are very interested in what he has to say. They’re also keen on his message in India (he recently attracted an audience of 800 there when he was made first fellow of the Indian National Quality Council); in Holland (where he thought his presentation in an old church would have been much improved with the addition of choir) as well as here in New Zealand. His recent seminar in Auckland pulled an unexpectedly large audience (350) from around the country.
And that’s just small sampling of his travel schedule. At nearly 80, the founder of the Kaizen Institute is still jet-setting around the globe delivering message he believes is more relevant than ever.
“This is time when many companies are suffering the effects of recession so it is definitely the time when they should adopt strategy to help them embrace lean production.”
Adoption of Kaizen mindset also ties neatly in with global shift toward reducing the environmental impact of business. That’s because “lean”, says Imai, is very focused on the reduction of waste (muda) and on optimising resource use.
“Lean really means environmentally friendly because it is about rejecting all the non-value-adding activities and reducing waste. The other important thing is that lean does not create unnecessary inventories. You see my definition of lean is to employ the minimum resources for the maximum output. It is really very simple.
“And when I say resources, I mean employees, material, machines, space, time of production and of course, capital. So lean has to be good environmentally.”
It’s clear that Imai is still passionate advocate for the process of “continuous improvement” about which he has been writing, talking and consulting to companies since the 1960s. That his current tour coincides with Toyota – long the poster child for Kaizen – hitting global headlines for all the wrong reasons doesn’t faze him in the least.
“Personally I still believe Toyota is one of the best managed companies in the world and I think they will be back to being very profitable if not within few months, then in one or two years. And in spite of all this negative publicity, the Toyota tradition will not be damaged.
“In fact what Toyota is doing now to cope with these situations is showing good example of what other companies should be doing. Who else would decide to carry out 100 percent recall of product in such circumstances?”
His association with Toyota goes back long way and that company’s success in competition with US giants such as GM and Chrysler forms part of Kaizen’s historical narrative. It began with the rebuilding of Japan’s economy post world war two. In the 1950s, fresh from university studies, Masaaki Imai got job in the Japanese Productivity Centre.
“In those days, you know, there was bilateral agreement between America and Japan for teaching ‘the secret of high productivity of American industry’ so I went there and my job was to escort Japanese managers to visit companies like GM and Chrysler to discover this ‘secret’.”
There is, of course, certain irony that he took what he learned about US management techniques back to Japan where its development subsequently became blueprint for success that enabled Japanese companies to trump their US counterparts.
“In hindsight, I can say that either America is very good teacher or Japan very good student,” Imai says with laugh.
It was his book: Kaizen: the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success that helped popularise these learnings in the Western world and introduce “Kaizen” into the global management vocabulary. Originally published by Random House in 1986, the book has remained primary resource for managers interested in the Kaizen concept of continual incremental improvement.
As Imai emphasises, this is not complex idea so much as committed mindset – one that is constantly prepared to question the status quo and keep relentless focus on all aspects of business process or operations to see where efficiencies can be gained and waste eliminated.
A decade later, he reiterated the basic idea while highlighting the notion of “gemba” – or the place where the “real work” or value-adding action takes place, whether on the factory floor or hotel reception desk. Gemba Kaizen: the Common-Sense Approach to Business Management urges managers to walk the shop floor so they can get to know every part of the process where tyre hits road in terms of either manufacturing process or service delivery.
This workplace or Gemba, he has suggested, is treated with greater reverence in Japan than in many western firms where it is seen as lowly and fit for only low-level employees. But hierarchy is not helpful in terms of engaging everyone in the improvement process and he says organisations that adopt Kaizen tend to have flatter management structures and people-centric approach.
As management philosophy it is more evolution than revolution, and it is perhaps this somewhat low-key nature of the Kaizen message that has prompted development of new tools that Imai regards as distraction from the real focus.
“Today one of the problems for many managers is that they are too eager to teach tools – they talk about statistical tools, Six Sigma, re-engineering… They come up with all sorts of tools. So what happens, they acquire the tools, then they want to identify where they can use them, where they can play.
“But as I said, one of the most important starting points is to identify the problems that need to be resolved – then if you have some tools to solve this, then use them by all means. But if you ask what is the most important change you have to make, I say you have to convert from traditional batch production into lean production. To do that, the only thing you can do is go to the ‘gemba’ and see what is happening, how people are doing their job and identify how and where the work flow is being interrupted.
“Mostly, all you need most of the time is to use your commonsense – to ask and keep asking why is this happening. Soon you will be able to identify the root cause of the problem and then you can change things, establish standards so the same problem is not going to happen again.”
In Japan, methods such as Six Sigma are apparently referred to as “American marketing” and Imai suggests that the adoption of management tools allows more distance than is helpful between “gemba” and management. Perhaps, that is because managers feel little uncomfortable on the shop floor or don’t really know what is going on there.
To highlight why it’s important management engages with the shopfloor process, Imai tells story. It’s about manager who wanted to show workers what it meant to practise total productive maintenance – and he did it by picking the dirtiest machine on the shop floor and spending hours of his own time cleaning it.
“Everyone wondered why the highest paid man is doing the janitor’s job but they soon realised he is starting out something new and that is how he was eventually able to introduce this idea. But he told me then that because he went every day to this dirty machine to keep cleaning it – that he touched the machine more often than he touched his wife. That is dedication.”
While the notion of Kaizen is

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