Kaizen - foundation for quality control
By Fujita Seiichi
People often call me a leader of kaizen as I travel the world to promote its concept during university breaks. Kaizen, which means a small change or an improvement of work, is a post-World War II manufacturing concept that has been developing along with “Japanese quality control.”
As a foundation for Japanese quality control, kaizen has been implemented in many workshops. In order to drastically change a working environment, it requires money and time. In contrast, a small change, or kaizen, can change the working environment quickly and easily without spending a large amount of money and time.
Since kaizen is a small change, the effect may also be small. The Japanese, in turn, took this small effect and repeated it numerous times to maximize its results; thus, giving way to the idea of kaizen. Therefore, kaizen is defined as an accumulation of small changes that makes work simpler, easier, more comfortable, and more efficient.
The main objective of kaizen is not cost reduction. In fact, the amount of cost savings by kaizen may sometimes be zero. However, by repeating kaizen persistently, the accumulated savings may become significant.
In contrast to kaizen's continual small change concept, there has also been a movement for big changes within the Japanese industry. This big change philosophy is called “innovation” or “breakthrough.” For big corporations, the activity of producing new products by using science and technology ensures sustainable growth.
Of course this requires a large amount of investment money and a significant period of time. For example, over 10 years of development and enormous amounts of money were spent to produce digital cameras, quartz watches, and liquid crystal displays. Hence in the past 10 years, Japan has used innovation to get out of economic recession. But in the shadows of innovation, there is always an existence of kaizen.
For instance, in order to construct a new highway, new technologies are developed to demolish mountains, dig tunnels, and build bridges. These technologies are considered innovations. However, kaizen activity is also needed to smooth surfaces of the highway and to reinforce tunnel walls.
In today’s Japan, and in Korea as well, the coexistence of both big and small changes must be retained in order to win international competition among industries.
People call me a kaizen expert as I teach its concepts to trainees from foreign countries. These trainees seem to have the knowledge of kaizen already. In fact, people have been improving their living environment for generations. Have you ever adjusted the height of a table, made a shoe box at your entrance foyer, or made a window for ventilation?
The question is, “Why don't people apply similar activities at work sites?” People organize their houses when they invite guests to homes. The essence of kaizen is to do the same at working sites.
Many trainees overseas were surprised when I introduced Japanese kaizen examples. Two examples are presented in this article.
The first kaizen example is from a Japanese primary school. At lunch, students rush to wash their hands. The students ask the teacher, “Where can I find soap?” The answer is it's in a plastic net hanging from the faucet. The location is shown in the Figure 1. This idea is used in Japanese schools today and in many manufacturing sites.
Another example of Kaizen can be found in Japanese trains. During rush hour, passengers standing hold strap rings to help maintain their balance against train movements.
The problem lies in the way of holding the strap ring. As shown in the Figure 2, the strap rings are usually circular in shape. However, Japan Railway (JR) changed the shape to a triangle as seen in the Figure 2.
In order to understand why the triangular shape fits a person's hand better, you must imagine the location of your hand when you are holding the strap. For the circular strap, you naturally push the hand forward for optimal grasp and comfort, but for the triangular strap, you can hold the strap comfortably next to your ear. The triangular strap is one of the most excellent kaizen examples which I have encountered in Japan. This kaizen deserves special recognition.
Dr. Fujita Seiichi is a professor at Waseda Business school in Waseda University.