I was flipping through some Japanese books on sayings and speeches given by Taiichi Ohno looking for inspiration for a quick blog post when I found this passage:
“Within the Toyota Production System, a lack of ability to do kaizen becomes a critical flaw. Does this mean that if you do kaizen that is the Toyota Production System? In fact the reverse is true.”
Taiichi Ohno explains that the type of kaizen that you do when the survival of your company depends on doing kaizen is the most important kaizen. As the term kaizen becomes more popular, Ohno observes that people do kaizen that don’t really need to be done. He calls this “omoitsuki kaizen” (思いつき改善） or in English “kaizen by inspiration” or “hit-upon-an-idea kaizen”.
This is quite counter intuitive. Isn’t kaizen all about people’s ideas, finding things to improve, and inspiration? Ohno would say “Oh, no”. He gives examples of inspiration kaizen such as “we can automate this” or “we fixed this” where in fact money was spent to improve something without proving that it contributed to profit. In fact these types of kaizen may increase output or efficiency, but the money spent may actually increase cost.
Bluntly, Taiichi Ohno points out that productivity improvements that do not result in actual whole number headcount reduction (1 person instead of 0.5 persons) is a poor kaizen. The process may have changed, and it may have measurably improved, but unless we can be show that it has reduced cost, it is a “stumbled upon kaizen” and not a step towards survival. Ohno is not advocating cost cutting through cutting headcount. Toyota kaizened their way to TPS because they had to find their way in the dark. Many companies try to kaizen their way to the TPS, and use headcount reduction as a cost driver. Taiichi Ohno warns us against following this path lightly.
Ultimately Taiichi Ohno is placing the responsibility on leadership to challenge people to use their creativity towards “life or death kaizens” that are critically important for the company to continue its operation, instead of “inspiration kaizens” that are directionless and of questionable bottom-line merit. At the time when Taiichi Ohno gave this speech both kaizen and the Toyota Production System were becoming fashionable and many companies were adopting these practices without really understanding the life and death struggles the Toyota Motor Company faced while building their system. His words are worth reflecting on even today.
Some have called such improvements based on inspiration rather than driven by top level goals “popcorn kaizens”. Perhaps this is because popcorn is light, plentiful, and tends to fly out of the pan and onto the floor as the corn is being popped. In my experience it is not good to completely discourage inspiration and popcorn kaizen. Taiichi Ohno is absolutely right, and kaizen should not be primarily inspiration-based. It should also be policy-based, target driven and meaningful enough for the leadership to take an active interest in supporting it. Both top-down and bottom-up kaizen are needed.
Sandwich kaizen, anyone?