THE MISSED OPPORTUNITY
by N G Nelson
Kaizen becomes the "Goal"
In examining the success of the Japanese system of Teamworking it is
necessary to understand the philosophy behind the Continuous Improvement Process, or
"Kaizen". Roth, referring to the MIT study and M Imai's book "Kaizen", breaks down the term KAIZEN into two component parts:
KAI - meaning "continuous change"
ZEN - meaning "leading to improvement".
According to Imai, changes in the West flow from plans or goals. In Japan, no final condition or state is described. Continuous Improvement becomes its own goal.
In the context of the Zen philosophy:
Continuous improvement = the sum of many small steps.
Kaizen as being process orientated = The way is the goal. 
In other words the process of achieving innovation is achieved by taking many, small, interrelated steps. A final goal is never achieved, as building on the basis of the first innovation the seeds of further innovations are sown. To get even more philosophical, each answer generates another question, therefore there is no final solution, simply a Continuous Improvement Process which has no final end or goal. This is a crucial part of the dynamic which maintains the Kaizen process. This philosophy more than anything else has been main driving force in the expansion of Japanese industry.
As regards the lack of specific goal orientation within most areas of modern Japanese industry, to understand the feasibility of this philosophy we must go back to a period of Japanese history following WW II, when the Japanese developed an interest in producing quality products. To help achieve this Dr W Edwards Deming, an American statistician, was invited to lecture in Japan on the use of "Statistical Process Control (SPC)". According to Hannam one aspect of Deming's approach to quality was his dislike of targets. Targets could be manipulated by those who set them, and by those who had to achieve them. He argued that targets limited performance. A target set too high may be so difficult to achieve that those who are set it do not really try to reach it, rather devoting their energies to finding reasons why the target cannot be achieved. A target set too low, is deliberately not reached too quickly, as this will probably cause subsequent targets to be set at a far more demanding level. Most targets have to be seen to be achievable, so they are not initially set as high as they might be. Within the working environment setting rigid targets can restrict innovation, it can set restraints on what could be achieved by employees.
The concept of avoiding rigid targets fits well within the Japanese social philosophy. When the Japanese communicate they rarely try to box anyone into a corner verbally, as this would require the other person to submit and lose face. A lack of precision gives room to manoeuvre/save face. A lack of rigid targets avoids the need to adopt a fixed position which may subsequently prove to be in-appropriate and need to be altered. Essentially then, within the CIP environment nothing is static, everything, even Standard Operating Procedures are subject to review. Hannam observes that when ideas are put forward they are not proposed in response to a management inspired target. Instead constant dynamic change is part of the very ethos of Japanese Company's and their staff. The crucial point here is that even if a target was set, with this type of CIP, Japanese employees would know that it was not a succeed or fail type of target but an indication of what was looked for. For instance K Rafferty quotes Hiroshi Yamauchi, President of Nintendo, who when discussing the delayed launch of a new Nintendo product, stated that, "The project leader asked for two more months (to develop the product) and I gave them to him unconditionally. If even ten out of a hundred users aren't satisfied with the new game it will be a huge blow." This is not just an example of supportive upstream management, it is an example of a senior manager deferring to the expertise of the project leader and his staff by acknowledging that a target needed to be revised. Had he taken the Western approach and issued the product regardless, not only might this have damaged the company's reputation and profitability, the investment of staff in the Kaizen dynamic would have been drastically undermined.
Fixed targets and goals restrict innovation. The final Japanese product is often very different from the original idea, due to the fact that the product has evolved. This attitude is not seen as a rational/cost effective approach in the West. However, in Japan it is realised that one set of objectives can lead to other spin offs which were not planned and could not have been anticipated at the start of the project. For instance, Floor Management Systems (non computerised method, whereby workers order just enough parts to complete their task using a card system) were developed as a spin off idea and were available long before Japanese Company's developed an interest in Just In Time (JIT) production. Floor Management Systems evolved to increase efficiency. They continued to evolve into JIT production as a result of employee input into the Continuous Improvement Process.
Importing Kaizen to the West
Regarding the transfer of Teamworking and Lean production techniques to Western industry, Hannam argues that, "cultural elements are neglected by Western Companies and so they tend to apply the methods incompletely. Subsequently they wonder why the methods do not work properly." He goes on to observe that, "few Western managers have sufficient confidence to delegate enough of their responsibility to others, which is a central part of the Japanese approach.". The Japanese system does not just revolve around teamworking to facilitate more efficient working, it is about creating an inclusive, self-perpetuating dynamic which facilitates Continuous Improvement and innovation. Achieving investment from all employees in the long term innovative process is more important than creating strong, top down management structures to achieve short term aims and goals. This crucial observation is often missed by Corporate imitators in the West.