Tour Story from a LEAN Expert - Reflections on Japanese Productivity and Efficiency...

Masaaki Imai’s kaizen lean journey started in 1950 at age 26, taking Japanese managers on tours of American plants looking for the secrets of high productivity and efficiency. In 1961, he returned to Japan and became the first corporate headhunter and consultant to major corporations striving for a competitive advantage. Twenty years later, the situation was reversed, with Mr. Imai receiving visitors from all over the world intent on seeking out the secrets of their Japanese trading partners- via kaizen Lean Study Tours.

This October I was fortunate enough to attend my second Japanese Study Tour, travelling with a small NZ contingent, to see more of how Japanese companies apply themselves to maximising productivity and efficiency in everything they do.

My overall impression is that the Japanese culture is one with a focus on delivering high quality products and services. I believe that this doctrine probably dates back to ancient times and has been translated into the modern age by companies such as Toyota, Lexus Sony and Panasonic to name but a few.

When our group visited the Toyota Plant at Tsutsumi we saw the how Productivity had been embraced with the relentless pursuit of waste elimination in the work that each operator did. “MUDA” the Japanese word for waste is understood by every employee and the philosophy of kaizen or continuous improvement means that everybody is looking at ways of improving productivity, everyday, everywhere.

Each and every worker knows exactly what they are to do, the sequence they are to do it in and their workplaces are set up and organized in a fashion that allows them to adopt a graceful, natural flow of movement as they repeat their tasks on a rhythmic basis. At first glance it may appear as if they are robots, and this is some kind of hard labour? However a more in depth look reveals they are relaxed, purposeful and there is no sign of stress as they work in harmony, reminding me of an orchestra as opposed to a chain gang.

There is no doubt, this is a highly efficient and productive system, and everything flows, and is in balance. Even when there is a problem, which does occasionally happen, the operators call for help using an “Andon”. A team leader scurries along to quickly assist the employee to analyse the root cause of the problem, takes corrective action downstream and only then allows the line to continue to flow.

During the weeklong tour we visited a diverse set of industries, ranging from automotive, precision die casting, plastics and for the first time, a hospital. The story remained the same, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is the recipe for success.

My advice is not to get carried away thinking that the Lean tools themselves are the answer, yes they help, but are merely extensions of the problem solving process and facilitate the relentless elimination of waste which in turn bolsters productivity, reduces lead time, cost, and improves quality.

My main conclusion, from my Japanese experience is that the philosophy of involving every employee in looking at how they do their work, and training them in the basic skills of recognising waste, workplace organization (5S) and problem solving was the common success factor in all of the companies that we visited.

This is something that New Zealand should consider as a challenge, we seem to fall behind our OECD partners each year, especially countries that have Japanese manufacturers within their borders. We need to embrace this recipe quickly if we are to maintain and improve our productivity, and realise that this is really a common sense approach that everyone can get involved in.


Join us in the upcoming Kaizen Tours to visist the Gemba where continuous improvement happens.

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