TPS Benchmarking

The Link Between Gemba Kaizen and Human Resource Development

By Jon Miller Published on March 9th, 2006

Nidhi Shah recently posted a question on this blog “Is there a link between Gemba kaizen and HRD personnel in an organisation?” Thanks for your question Nidhi. Kaizen and Lean manufacturing can sometimes be seen as technical areas that are owned by production management, industrial engineering or quality departments. In both organizations just starting out with kaizen and in mature Lean manufacturing organization there is a strong case for having kaizen activity integrated as part of a company’s human resource development strategy.
In addition to hiring, training and resolving personnel conflicts human resource specialists should develop people into good problem solvers. This is really the heart of kaizen. The way to develop people’s kaizen skills and problem solving is mostly not through class room study but in actual practical situations on the gemba. Of course this is the job of the team leader, supervisor or manager but HRD has a role in identifying the types of OJT (on the job training) needed to support not only the production or transactional process but also problem solving within that process.
At many companies active in kaizen, as in Toyota, kaizen activity (whether it be QC Circles, suggestion systems, or jishuken) are paid for out of the training budget, as part of human resource development.
In regards to suggestion systems and employee involvement in day-to-day problem solving and kaizen activity there is often the question of whether people should be paid for their kaizen ideas. The answer is that yes, they should be paid. The reason is that people are asked to develop and document these kaizen ideas during their breaks, lunch time and after work. It is not so much a reward as a thanks for doing informal of overtime work. This payment for ideas (typically $5 for all ideas implemented) comes out of the HRD budget because this type of kaizen is also training.
There are specific ways that HRD personnel can support Lean manufacturing and kaizen. For instance the Skill Matrix is a key to used to visualize cross training and enabling multi-process handling and one-piece flow. As part of a training and skill development system, the Skill Matrix is a very useful tool. See here for an example of an article I posted earlier on how the use of a skill matrix enabled kaizen.
The Human Capital Institute website often contains good information on the area of Human Resources Development. An article titled The Latest Trends of Japanese HRM Systems: An Interview with Professor Yasuhiko Uchida is a very interesting study of trends and comparisons of HR systems. The following two questions and answers in the interview I found relevant the topic of the link between HRD personnel and kaizen:
Are Japanese companies giving up on their practice of long-term employment?
No. I would like to emphasize that Japanese companies have not abolished long-term employment and still prefer developing their employees internally rather than utilizing the labor market to bring in outside talent.
What sort of firm-specific knowledge did these manufacturing firms consider important?
The competencies companies really want are, for example, kaizen ability on the shop floor, craftsmanship, and firm-specific technical knowledge such as high quality liquid crystal production capability for Sharp Corporation, hybrid car engine technologies for Toyota, and precision instruments assembly technologies for Canon. Sharp has been able to develop LCD technologies because it has shifted three-quarters of its technological specialists in various fields to LCD-not by trying to bring in that talent from outside.

For Japanese companies role of HRD is not only critical to kaizen, but also developing core competencies and even innovation in new products and technologies, according to Professor Uchida
As an addendum to the article there is a list of differences between HR in the United States and Japan. Since kaizen originated in Japan and many of us recognize Toyota as one of the better companies at doing long-term kaizen I think understanding these differences can provide insight to the question of the link between kaizen and HRD personnel. From the article:
1. Role of HR
U.S.: To support business departments.
Japan: One part of management strategy (like capital management).
2. Goals of human-resources development
U.S.: Improve general performance skills: Create specialists.
Japan: Develop firm-specific knowledge, ability and attitude: Develop generalists.
3. Appraisal standards
U.S.: Focus on performance, and secondarily general skills.
Japan: Focus on ability, attitude and performance-these are firm specific.
4. HR development methods
U.S.: People develop through experience working in the specific job and off-site training.
Japan: Moving personnel to different jobs in the company is the most effective method for developing employees over the long-term.

“Kaizen won’t work for us because this isn’t Japan” is an often-heard excuse. The processes, parts or services that people create around the world are not so different. The people, and how we develop them into customer-focused problem solvers is the key difference. For most of us reading right now “…this is not Japan” is a true statement, but not an excuse. A more useful way to put it may be that some organizations find kaizen challenging “…because we don’t have a human resource development strategy that supports kaizen.”
There are enough organizations outside of Japan succeeding with Lean manufacturing and kaizen to refute the above excuse. At the same time you could argue that success with kaizen has nothing to do with the differences in how firms in Japan and the United States approach HRD. But there are not so many organizations outside of Japan that can honestly say they have been doing kaizen non-stop for 20. 30 or 40 years. That requires a strong link between kaizen and HRD personnel because ultimately kaizen is all about people becoming problem solvers.

  1. Eric Christiansen

    March 10, 2006 - 8:07 am

    Thank you for the article. At OmniLingua (a company that operates upon the theories of Dr. Deming) we have found that it is a very difficult prospect for Americans to become *generalists.* There is always the concern that if the company should fail, “what am I going to do if I have lost my skills.” The only way to address that concern is to give employees the ability to help shape their own future.
    I do disagree with one point you make — that employees should be paid for their kaizen efforts. $$ solves very few problems; time on the other hand solves many more. At OmniLingua, we have carved out 10 hours of each employees weekly 40 hours and focus those hours on improvement and innovation efforts at system, process and individual levels.
    That has had a greater impact on system improvement than giving someone $5 bucks to spend at McDs for lunch.

  2. Jon Miller

    March 10, 2006 - 8:32 am

    You make a very good point about people development and career paths. U.S. firms have generally done better at this and the Japanese are beginning to adopt this as the guarantee of lifetime employment erodes.
    Your company is doing something remarkable in taking 10 out of 40 hours per week to do improvements! Not many companies can copy that.
    The $5 payment is not meant to motivate people or solve problems so much as thank them for the 15 minutes of “off the clock” time they spent on the idea.
    Toyota has a system for evaluating the impact of kaizen ideas and paying additional reward money. Many firms will evaluate ideas several times per year, have a celebration and and out prizes.
    Most companies with this type of suggestion system make it very clear that kaizen is part of your job, and not something you are paid extra for.
    That being said, motivating everyone to constantly think about kaizen and generate 1 or 2 ideas per month year after year can be hard. So part of the role of HRD personnel in kaizen is to motivate and educate people so that they see the value to themselves of becoming problem solvers.

  3. [email protected]

    March 11, 2006 - 12:48 pm

    Thanks for replying John. The article has been of great help. However, I would like to know the popularity Gemba Kaizen is being practiced in the UK.

  4. Jon

    March 13, 2006 - 8:39 pm

    That’s difficult for me to say. Perhaps a reader from the UK can comment.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.