UK firms may suffer from `kamikaze’ Kaizen strategy

The Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, which promotes continuous improvement in business processes, has greatly benefited UK firms in the past. But the half-hearted approach being taken by others could do more harm than good

Over the past 15 years, hundreds of UK manufacturers have benefited from Kaizen, a business technique developed in Japan which aims to raise productivity through continuous improvement and employee participation.

But as with many successful ideas, the original version is in danger of being diluted. While all Kaizen projects promise improvements, in some cases the `continuous’ element is being left out. Some experts warn that this half-hearted approach could result in few benefits for the companies which use it – and could possibly damage them.

Initiatives like the much-praised SMMT Industry Forum, which is largely based on Kaizen principles and is apparently having dramatic success in improving the competitiveness of the automotive supply chain, could fail to leave a lasting impression, some experts say.

According to Kate Mackle, UK managing partner of the Kaizen Institute, a management consultancy which specialises in the technique, one-off improvement events are giving Kaizen a bad name. `Any company promoting the belief that change can be made quickly can create a damaging kickback as the results quickly dissipate,’ she says.

`It’s becoming more common for companies to contact us following an experience with Industry Forum or some other organisation practising Kaizen events as they realise the lack of sustainability of such an approach. The analogy is a crash diet, which takes an enormous effort but has little effect unless a person’s lifestyle changes.’

Although Mackle agrees with the Industry Forum’s aims, she believes that some companies may lose out if they attend a short, intensive session and then fail to take it any further.

`For example, an event could show a company how to change a press in 15 minutes rather than an hour,’ she says. `But lots of other changes need to take place or the amount of time it takes will creep back up again.’

Automotive component maker Unipart has seen its efficiency improve dramatically since it started working to Kaizen principles. Chief executive John Neill, who now chairs Industry Forum, believes that standards may be slipping as companies look for a quick fix. `That’s kamikaze Kaizen,’ he says. `It’s never as simple as it looks. You have to make a strategic commitment to Kaizen, otherwise you will be disappointed in a year’s time when all the grass has grown back.’

John Darlington, former turbo-charger plant manager for AlliedSignal, has worked with both the Industry Forum and the Kaizen Institute. In both cases the approach worked, but the forum was just used for a one-week masterclass. `We were taught some good techniques, but it’s asking a lot to rely on such a short period of time to pass on knowledge,’ he says. `If we hadn’t already understood the principles of Kaizen, an opportunity would have slipped through our fingers.’

Industry Forum director Arthur David says that the masterclass should be seen as an entry-level event rather than the last word on continuous improvement.

`We have probably got the best exponents of Kaizen in the world in our masterclasses. How well a company takes on learning will determine whether it wants to continue with us on more extensive programmes. If the company feels it’s learned enough then it can continue on its own,’ he says.

Over the past three years, Industry Forum has worked with over 200 companies. The concept is about to be rolled out to 10 more industry sectors, including machine tools, in a programme part-funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, which is providing £15m. The debate surrounding Kaizen, therefore, is likely to continue.

`It is extremely encouraging to see this type of government involvement,’ says Mackle. `What we need is a dialogue to pool experiences and give business a broader understanding of what continuous improvement really means.’

What is Kaizen?

Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning continuous improvement. In business, it is usually taken to mean a process which includes management and workforce pulling together to eliminate waste and improve productivity.

Kaizen principles reached the UK through two routes: first, a book entitled Kaizen – the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, written by Masaaki Imai and published in 1986. Masaaki draws on lessons from Toyota, generally considered Japan’s most successful car maker. The same approach is used by the Kaizen Institute, an international management consultancy which Masaaki set up in 1985.

But what really made Kaizen’s name in the UK was the rush of Japanese inward investment which started in the 1980s, lead by companies like Nissan. Kaizen is now associated with a range of improvement techniques, including employee empowerment on the shopfloor and single-piece flow on the production line.

Kaizen practitioners emphasise the benefits of involving workers in improvements. This broadens the range of possible suggestions for improvements and builds support for change. Companies which have successfully applied Kaizen techniques in the UK include Aston Martin and Leyland Trucks.