Tips for Lean Managers

The Kaizen Mindset Requires Starting with Scarcity

By Jon Miller Published on March 16th, 2007

We have been fortunate to visit Ricoh factories in Japan and in my opinion Ricoh is an excellent company and a great example of implementing the Toyota Production System outside of the automotive industry. They are also a leader in reducing the negative impact they have on the environment as a manufacturer. I continue to learn from Ricoh.
Masamitsu Sakurai served as president of Ricoh UK Products Ltd. before becoming CEO of Ricoh Co. Ltd. One of the insights he gained upon returning to Japan was the difference between what he called Japanese-style “management by kaizen” (改善型経営) and Western-style “management by selection” (選択型経営).
One example Sakurai gave was that in Japan the first response to a high rate of absenteeism is to conduct root cause analysis into the behavior of absenteeism, leading to kaizen. In Europe the management would replace the worker who had an attendance problem with another workers. Problem not solved, but deferred.
Likewise, when there is a supplier performance problem the management by selection approach would be to find an alternate supplier while management by kaizen approach would be to keep the supplier and help them improve. Once again the root cause may not have been addressed at all. A selection was made, but in fact no improvement was made.
Granted this is a generalization and not true of all management in Japan or Europe, but as generalizations often go, it is true. Just as necessity is the mother of invention, or as Taiichi Ohno said, “Your wits don’t work until you feel the squeeze,” when you have no options to choose from other than what you have now, your choice is to do kaizen or perish.
Having a kaizen mindset requires starting with scarcity. When you have abundance, you become lazy. It becomes harder to see the need for kaizen. The typical human response when resources are plentiful is “Why change?”
That is why we have to imagine and pursue the ideal customer experience and strive to provide it, because this requires more resources than we already have. The customer wants to pay nothing to have a perfect product right away. This requires going beyond the selection to doing kaizen.
An important corollary to this rule is to do kaizen when times are good. Otherwise when you are faced with true scarcity you may not have enough resources to even make the improvements you need to make in order to survive. If you are practicing management by selection, select management by kaizen.

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