Two news stories highlight conflicting interpretations of Kaizen

Dateline 3/16/2012, Marion, Ill: Aisin recognized with top achiever award. This article recounts how “Aisin Manufacturing Illinois of Marion was recently recognized for their success among all Aisin operations in North America, as the top achiever in the 1-person/1-kaizen program. The 1-person/1-kaizen program is a national program that allows Aisin team members the opportunity to submit and implement ideas for improvement in the areas of safety, quality, cost, delivery or environmental.” In other words, it is an individual suggestion system.

Dateline 3/19/2012, Anoka County, MN: County taking Lean approach to government. The approach to improve the processing of paternity cases was designed by outside consultants, Innovation Process Design, LLC. Their were implemented “using the Kaizen process.” Since recommendations from outside consultants couldn’t possibly be implemented by individual employee suggestions, “Kaizen” obviously does not have the same meaning as in the Aisin story. Drilling through from the article, you reach a government website from the EPA, which defines Kaizens as “rapid improvement processes,” organized in the form of events.

That Kaizen should mean something so radically different in the Japan and the US would not be a problem if the success of the original, Japanese Kaizen were not used to promote the made-in-the-USA Kaizen events. One particularly unfortunate consequence is the quasi-total absence of Kaizen activity in the original senses in US factories that are not Japanese transplants.

7 comments on “Two news stories highlight conflicting interpretations of Kaizen

  1. Comment in the IndustryWeek manufacturing network on LinkedIn:

    Japanese Kaizen only has one definition and purpose. Just because a Government site used the word Kaizen incorrectly does not make it ‘official’. As reference I would site another Government site that most do consider the ‘official’ on the topic, yet has grave discrepancies, the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH). A great example is given in the article where the OOH references a school in India as the certifying body for a USA maintenance person. :>) As the article points out, the Gov site is clearly inaccurate and should not be used as the ‘official’ word on the matter. :>) As with the “Outdated” occupational Handbook (OOH), he he.

    • Kaizen in Japan actually has a broader meaning than in the article about Aisin, where it refers only to individual suggestions. Kaizen is also often implemented through small-group activities that I personally find more effective because they can address slightly larger issues than individual suggestions and participants develop project management and teamwork skills.

      Regarding the Anoka county story, I only checked out the EPA website to verify in what sense the word “Kaizen” was used in the article. My concern was not about errors in government documents. More generally, if you say “Kaizen” in an US plant, it is understood to mean “Kaizen Events” and nothing else. For an exception to this rule, see the article I ran into about Aeron chairs.

  2. Comment in the SME Society of Manufacturing Engineers discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Having read Masaaki Imai’s book, “Kaizen” early in my career and taken it very much to heart, this has always been a pet peeve of mine.

    I really appreciate the closing statement, “One particularly unfortunate consequence is the quasi-total absence of Kaizen activity in the original senses in US factories that are not Japanese transplants.”

    So very (and unfortunately) true.

  3. Comment in the Leadership and Lean The Top 5% discussion group on LinkedIn:


    The two short news stories do point to conflicting interpretations of the meaning of Kaizen. Kaizen is still a tool that is misunderstood in many organizations where it is attempted to be used. As a result, this mis-directed attempt at applying another “lean tool” results in lackluster achievements. But then, kaizen is more than just another “lean tool”—- but that is another story.

    Kaizen is not individual suggestion systems, as you state in your comments. Kaizen, when used properly, provides the problem-solving culture that is so necessary to innovation and continuous improvement. Mr. Imai I am sure is constantly grinding his teeth over the misunderstanding that surrounds the concept of kaizen as practiced by most organizations today.

    The proper use of kaizen does create organizations of world-class performance levels that is ingrained as part of the culture. When kaizen becomes part of the culture and practiced properly, it is a powerful weapon.

    Like most lean concepts, kaizen seems easy to understand, but it takes an understanding of the complexity and art that underlies it to make it truly work

  4. Comment in the Leadership and Lean The Top 5% discussion group on LinkedIn:


    KAIZEN spirit is not a tool, more of a way of thinking and therefore a way of living at work and home and how one interacts with the world.
    The behaviors that result are simple, those who possess KAIZEN spirit are always looking for a better way and never content with the status quo.
    They feel constant conflict when abnormality exists.

    The spirit of KAIZEN is all ready or becomes a personal value. Immovable value!
    There are KAIZEN activities, which transform KAIZEN spirit in people and produce an improved condition that is measurably different from before and produces true not apparent benefit for others not just for those who are performing KAIZEN activities.

    Todd McCann

  5. Pingback: Kaizen in Japan versus the English-Speaking World | Michel Baudin's Blog

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