Thursday, February 7, 2008

Let’s have some wa, hansei and kaizen

by Sudheendra Kulkarni

Indian businessmen doing business with Japan are of two types — one, for whom the relationship is short-term and frustrating, and the other for whom it becomes durable and highly fulfilling, not only financially but also in other intangible ways. The first type will complain: “It’s difficult to understand the Japanese. They take so long to take decisions, rarely come straight to the point and conclude the deal. Who has got that much time in today’s world of multiple opportunities?”
Those in the second category will tell you: “For the Japanese, business partnerships are not only about making money. They are about seeking, preserving and promoting wa or harmony, a quintessentially Japanese principle, which they practice within their own companies, in product design, art and society in general. They have an elaborate and often time-consuming way of ascertaining whether a particular decision harmonises with their culture of doing business. But once they know that you are trustworthy and the right partner, decisions are taken very fast, often without the formality of legal documents. You then begin to realise how scrupulously they keep their word, care for your feelings, respect your ideas and suggestions, and make the relationship an opportunity for mutual growth.”
I have mentioned this because in my last week’s column (‘The Toyo-Tata Way to Nation-Building’) I had reflected upon how Toyota’s unique manufacturing principles had not only enabled it to become the world’s leading car company, but also offered important lessons for all types of organisation-building. My reflections were triggered, first, by Jeffrey K. Liker’s internationally acclaimed book The Toyota Way and, later, by a visit to Toyota’s main plant in Nagoya in Japan. Can manufacturing have a moral message? Can it have a cultural and philosophical basis? These questions may sound strange, but the answer, provided by Toyota and many Japanese companies, is yes.
In Toyota’s superior business paradigm, its long-term vision of value-creation supersedes pursuit of short-term money-making. Every employee is made to feel important, honoured, empowered and responsible to achieve the company’s objectives of zero-defect, zero-waste and complete customer satisfaction. This is what helped Toyota beat American auto giants Ford and General Motors in most markets globally. Liker’s book presents amazing case-studies of how Toyota doubled or tripled the speed of every business process, reduced production cost through constant innovation, and made quality control a company-wide obsession.
But The Toyota Way’s principal lessons are not for car-making alone. For example, as a political activist, I believe that all those political parties that are concerned about problems within and genuinely desire long-term growth would profit by paying heed to the following principles.
• “Don’t hide problems within the organisation, but bring them to the surface.”
• “Continuously solving root problems improves organisational learning. Even high-level managers should go and see things for themselves, so that they will have more than a superficial understanding of the situation.”
• “Develop such leaders in your organisation who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.”
• “Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy. Make an ongoing effort to teach individuals to work together as teams toward common goals.”
• “Become a learning organisation through relentless reflection (hansei) and continuous improvement (kaizen). Protect the organisation’s knowledge and cultural base by developing stable personnel, careful promotion, and well thought-out succession systems.”
Similarly, Toyota’s constant effort to achieve “zero waste of human, material, energy and time resources” is something that ought to become the guiding principle of a national mission in India. Take energy conservation, for example. When the Japanese government issued a directive to its citizens three years ago to use less energy for air-conditioning in summer, Toyota, Hitachi, Sony and other big and small companies asked everyone, from chairmen down to receptionists, not to wear their ties and jackets in office. When the government set strict new energy-saving targets for consumer and office electronics products, saying they must be redesigned to use 63 per cent less power by 2008, every company got down to the task. It is through such national campaigns that Japan has managed to achieve the impossible: It now imports 16 per cent less oil than it did in 1973, although its GDP has more than doubled. How does India fare in this regard? Five years ago, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced an energy-saving campaign in government offices, in which the PMO and Rashtrapati Bhavan were required to cut their power consumption by 10 per cent. Nobody knows about the fate of that campaign.
The trouble with Indians, especially with those in government and politics, is that we talk more and do less. Though our businesses are now transforming themselves, most of the work processes in government and political parties are extremely slow and deeply flawed. There is poor adherence to any long-term vision and specific goals, and scant accountability to reach them. And little is done to enthuse, empower, involve and reward the ‘small’ man in the achievement of big organisational or national objectives. If we want to build a New India in the 21st century, isn’t it high time we enshrined the Indian equivalents of wa, hansei and kaizen in a nationwide drive for a New Work Culture in governance, politics, business and other spheres of public life? --(IndiaExpress)


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