Kaizen Stories from Masaaki Imai

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting with Masaaki Imai,the founder of our company Kaizen Institute Consulting Group. Most people know him as the author of his influential books.

1975 Never Take Yes for an Answer: An Inside Look at Japanese Business
1986 KAIZEN: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success
1997 GEMBA KAIZEN: A Commonsense, Low-cost Approach to Management

Few people know that he is working on a new book. He shared with me an early draft of this book. It is on the topic of what it takes for organizations to sustain continuous improvement long-term. He has gained insight over the past decades in his role as kaizen ambassador and visionary for our company, actively participating in conferences around the world. He continues to deliver a persuasive message about kaizen focused on a top down / bottom up approach that engages the entire enterprise in improvement. These are the ideas that Mr. Imai will summarize in practical ways in his new book.

While discussing his new book Mr. Imai told me a story about the origin of the gemba spirit at Toyota. The Japanese automobile manufacturer is famous for their management culture of going to see reality with their own eyes, called genchi genbutsu. Unlike many manufacturers who increasingly find the factory floor and the process of making things to be less attractive than marketing, innovation and outsourcing, Toyota leaders has remained dedicated to the shop floor for the past 100 years.

It began with the founder Sakichi Toyoda in the days when he was perfecting his automatic loom. Toyoda was an inventor to whom the factory floor was his laboratory. He was very close to the gemba (shop floor), so much so that he built his house inside the factory. He lived on the second floor so that he could go to the gemba any time an idea struck him. His son, Kiichiro Toyoda, who would carry on his father’s vision and found Toyota Motors, literally grew up in the factory. “When Kiichiro was a child, he would go into the factory and play hide and seed among the machines.” Mr. Imai told me. This story goes a long way towards explaining the affinity the leadership at Toyota have for the gemba.