Lean Manufacturing

Highlights from an Interview with Masaaki Imai

By Jon Miller Published on October 21st, 2005

I came across a January 28, 2005 interview with Masaaki Imai by Gita Piramal, Managing Editor of The Smart Manager, a bi-monthly Indian business management magazine. It is titled The father of Kaizen speaks! and some good questions are posed and the answers are insightful.
The title is catchy but incorrect. Imai is not the father of kaizen. He is the author of Kaizen and Gemba Kaizen and the founder of Kaizen Institute. Nor is the following statement from the article, in any way, a reflection of reality:
“Toyota, the outstandingly successful Japanese carmaker, became one of his most committed followers.” Prof. Imai observed the kaizen phenomena at Toyota and other companies in Japan and published his book on the subject in 1986. At Toyota Gemba Kaizen was active decades before that.
Who is the father of kaizen? That is a separate discussion but let’s just say it was a multi-decade, team effort. The contributors range from Frederick Taylor to Lillian & Frank Gilbreth to Henry Ford to those who formulated Training Within Industry in the early 1940s as part of the war effort, to Sakichi Toyoda, Edwards Deming, Taiichi Ohno, and Shigeo Shingo.
Masaaki Imai, Norman Bodek, James Womack, and Jeffrey Liker have helped promote and popularize kaizen, Lean manufacturing and Toyota Production System outside of Japan over the past two decades through their work in writing, speaking and publishing.
Imai continues his contribution in this article. Highlights include:
On the Sufficiency of Kaizen to Make Big Changes
When asked whether kaizen, or small changes, can be enough when big change is needed in an organization, Imai responds “Kaizen is the means to achieve a corporate strategy, not the strategy” and that “The most important challenge facing top management today… [ ] …is to establish a target about where they want to take the company in the next two, five and ten years.”
Imai goes on to say that in manufacturing there are two systems, batch & queue (traditional manufacturing) and “Just in Time” or Toyota Production System (Lean manufacturing) and that the big change companies must make to survive is the change from batch to JIT.
On Wny Batch Manufacturing is Bad
“The batch production system, to which almost 99.9 per cent of all manufacturing companies subscribe, is destined to perish” says Imai, mainly because it is extremely difficult to build in quality and respond to a variety of customer requirements on-demand.
In talking about the importance of knowing what the customer wants in order to be able to deliver products through Just In Time production, Imai redefines the role of marketing:
“The customer may not know that she wants a product. The inventor has to estimate the market for it. It is the role of marketing to define the product and the role of production to make the product. Well, I think it is the other way round. The role of marketing is to dig out the potential or hidden requirement that the market has.”
On China
The interviewer spends considerable space on the issue of China. In response to the question of China’s “efficiency” Imai says that this is a false perception. In summary Imai he says that China is low-cost but not efficient. The appearance of efficiency has been given to them by the Japanese technology and transfer of quality control and production management knowledge.
On the Decline of the Supremacy of Japanese Business
Imai says that he Japanese model is still superior but that external circumstances such as government and market regulation, population demographics, and woes in the financial sector have made Japan’s economy less functional in spite of superior management systems, particularly in manufacturing.
On Indian Management Practices
When asked about his views on Indian management practices, Imai responds:
“They are under the impression that real knowledge can be gained only by reading books and attending lectures. How often do they actually roll up their sleeves and get into some action?”
“They really need to make more effort [at getting into the thick of action]. They have immense knowledge, but what they lack is wisdom that comes by doing things yourself.”

These words ring particularly true. It is not just Indian management but managers everywhere who need to “go see” to verify what they think they know and to roll up their sleeves and get into the thick of things on their Gemba.

  1. rammohun

    March 2, 2006 - 2:02 pm

    thisis RAMMOHUN FROM USA>Istudied us& ukin1974,return back indiato work.
    iread yu article. very good. Indian MAngers lags practials.
    iworded INDIA AS Engineer TO CEO.
    with regards

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