The article Kaizen – the Achilles heel of Japan on a blog titled “On the Surface – Logical thinking in an everyday world” (which I suspect may be a title attempting irony but at two posts it is too early to tell) pulls off the triple crown of failing to understand kaizen, Japan and Achilles’ heel.
The premise of the article is that kaizen was what made Japanese tech firms unstoppable in the1980s, but now kaizen is the one thing holding them back.
Kaizen or CIP (Continuous Improvement Process) as it’s referred to in western countries is the idea of identifying points of improvement in a process and then taking continual, incremental steps to address those points. It’s amazingly logical and surprisingly simple.
The article claims that managers who practice kaizen (or at least those who use the word) become risk averse. Continual improvement makes one risk averse. Taking small steps to changing processes makes one conservative? The more we change, the more we desperately want to stay the same? The better things get, the less we want to make things? The more we see that our actions to remove obstacles to employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and growth are successful, the less we want to do these things? Sounds illogical, but let’s read on.
What happens when a company abandons Kaizen as the leading factor of their business model? We only need to look at Toyota for the answer. Toyota was one of the major proponents of Kaizen in the 1980s and 1990s and still uses it today, but not in the same capacity.
So Toyota abandoned kaizen, but still uses it. Because it did / didn’t abandon kaizen, it was able to stop making boring cars.
Kaizen is problem solving. When the problem is unappealing product design, Toyota applies the same thinking to the innovation process. For more on this, look up Toyota Business Practice, A3 thinking and practical problem solving. They are all branches of the same kaizen tree, rooted in the scientific method.
Moving away from concepts like Kaizen and focusing on the risky path of innovation is the only way for the Japanese tech industry to make its long awaited comeback.
Logically, continuous improvement (kaizen, CIP) cannot do damage, or it is no longer improvement. There is a word for “change for the worse” and it is not kaizen.
What the blogger is trying to say is that innovation-killing management attitudes have damaged the Japanese high tech industry. No doubt there are practices resulting from risk aversion, hubris and comfort with the status quo that have stifled innovation at some tech giants in Japan. Kaizen is not one of these practices.
There are many factors to consider. These include a lack of proximity and intimacy with the American market due to separation by language, an ocean and a sizable Japanese home market making it possible do business without moving R&D to the USA; social and cultural norms such as the extreme aversion to bankruptcies and business failures which prevent rapid learning from failed experiments and stifle innovation; the barriers to entrepreneurship including minimum levels of capital required to start businesses, the reluctance of established firms to extend credit or supply to startups that may potentially disrupt the business of their major customer, and the relative immaturity of venture capital in Japan to develop startups even if the previous points were not limiting factors to the emergence of startups and innovation to begin with.
In hindsight, Masaaki Imai’s book should have been titled Kaizen: A Key of Japan’s Competitive Success rather than Kaizen: The Key… because kaizen is just one factor in the success of an organization or society. Kaizen is necessary but not sufficient.
Achilles is the hero of Greek mythology who was physically invincible in battle with the exception of one spot – his heel. Used as a metaphor, the Achilles’ heel is the single weak spot in something that is otherwise invincible. A look beyond the surface reveals that Japan was and is far from invincible. It’s economic miracle was felled not by kaizen but by the economic bubble brought on by inflated land prices, a declining population, and and saturation of the home market with consumer goods. The surprisingly delay in wider adoption of kaizen, Lean or Toyota Production System methods compared to countries in the West is in part due to a lack of marketing. Masaaki Imai’s book was published in English and not published in Japanese until a few years ago.
So little of the Japanese economy actually practices kaizen that a more apt metaphor would be “Achilles’ heel in reverse”. If the Greek hero’s mother had dipped only the baby’s heel in the Styx, rather than the whole body, that would be the analogue to kaizen and Japan.
The surface is but the uppermost layer or outside part of something. If you are curious, dive deep into the water, or risk bearing Achilles’ flaw all over.