Kaizen and Sushi
Kaizen is all the rage these days in management circles. It means a process of continuous improvement as you probably already know. It’s is the secret to the success of Toyota in taking over the world car market and the proffered explanation about about what has gone wrong with American manufacturing. For an old guy like me it is as much of a shock to have Japanese management philosophies considered the best as it is to see a sushi bar on every corner.
I like sushi. It is new!
Don’t get me wrong. I was an early adopter of sushi and I’m fine that America continues to import the best people and the best ideas that the world offers. Kaizen is good too, even though it is actually an American invention that just never got traction in its home country. I like the idea of continuous improvement. I have used it many times in my life when I was stuck with a routine job- like when I was in the Army or graduate school. While mired in mindless tasks the game of making small improvements, competing with myself and improving productivity as a result kept me sane. And in those ancient times, I had never even heard of kaizen. I even like PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust), the continuous cycle of improvement which is a foundation of Kaizen. It is just that kaizen isn’t useful when you are seeking to break new ground and innovate. I think this is why kaizen never caught on in the US until now and why its inventor had to go to far away Japan to receive recognition. Kaizen is un-American.
You said that kaisen is un-American?
Yes, I did and no I don’t think that kaizen is a communist plot and I don’t think that Kaizen is bad. Kaizen is great for improving an existing process. It can make something you already know how to do, better. But it is no good at all for inventing something new. It is stagnant and backward looking. It is closed and limited. Perfect for Japan. Lousy for America.
That’s what I said.
Japan isn’t creative, open or inventive as a country and so Kaizen is perfect for incrementally improving the old routine but America is about new ways to do old things and doing new things- doing something new and different just for the sheer, good-natured hell of it. Forget kaizen for that.
Let Japan master boring, dependable navel contemplation.
So I say let Japan continue with Kaizen. Let them continue to flood the world with boring, dependable cars that you never have to think about (or want to think about for that matter). Let them perfect the past and make it better. America will continue to try things that have never been done; push limits and lead the world forward. Japan can follow along later and make then routine and boring. Kaizen is fine when you are stuck in a rut and your big goal is to keep from bumping the edges and making the ride smooth. It is just what you need to keep from straying into the unknown, rough ground on either side of the smooth rut. But if you want to get out of the rut and see what is possible and boldly go where no man has gone before, you want to stay as far away from Kaizen as possible.