Tuesday, July 15, 2008

David Wright: Kaizen and the ongoing pursuit of excellence

In my last column I mentioned that one of the things that really left an impression on me from my recent trip to Japan was the ongoing commitment to Kaizen, or Continuous Improvement, that was evident in all of the companies we visited.

Before I expand upon that, I’d just like to say that last week I was at the Dorchester in London attending the IMechE Manufacturing Excellence (Mx) awards dinner, which to my mind are the best of all of the various manufacturing awards.

It is fantastic to be in an environment where the best of Britain’s manufacturing companies are being celebrated, especially when there were West Midlands based companies being recognised; the PricewaterhouseCoopers award for Customer Focus was won by Hozelock, with ZF Lemforder in Solihull being commended in the Integrated e-business category, sponsored by the National B2B Centre.

Making the final shortlist is an achievement in itself, so to go one step further is simply tremendous, especially when the standard of entries is so consistently high.

So, back to Kaizen, which in a way, I suppose, is the whole point; Kaizen isn’t an initiative or a project or a fad. You can’t say ‘we’ve done Kaizen – what’s next?’ If you are truly committed to continuous improvement, there’s a clue in the name: it is continuous. It becomes not just a part of what a company does, but a part of what a company is.

If we decide to call that a philosophy or a culture really doesn’t matter; what characterises companies who do it properly is the way in which the people behave, and by the people I mean all of the people throughout the organisation; Kaizen is not just for the shop floor or for the operators.

There are companies in the West, in the UK and, yes, even in the West Midlands who are doing well in their efforts to create and sustain a Kaizen culture and who are reaping business benefits as a consequence; and more power to their elbows, say I.

In fact, we are pretty good at supporting those Kaizen activities, which generate a cash return for the company. We recognise and reward the people for good Kaizen improvements, as they do in Japan.

What I saw in the Far East, however, was subtly but importantly different. Everyone was encouraged to make improvements in whatever way possible to their working environment and process, irrespective of how small or insignificant this might seem.

Some of these improvements would clearly have a demonstrable productivity, safety, quality or cost benefit, but for many the calculations would not be so easy and so the recognition of their value, or contribution, would be difficult. Yet everyone continues to do it, why? Because it isn’t the improvement that matters, it’s the improving.

It’s the encouragement to suggest and implement all of the changes, which cumulatively make the difference – and, of course, the more you do, the more likely it is that the real gems will be uncovered. As General George S Patton once said: “A good solution applied with vigour now, is better than a perfect solution applied 10 minutes later.”

Sometimes we in the West mistakenly believe that the success of Japanese manufacturing is built upon this one activity, Kaizen, on the shop floor. It’s a shop-floor thing. Wrong.

The “light bulb” moment for me?

Effective Kaizen practice is yet another manifestation of good leadership, more of which another time. It works better in Japan than anywhere else, I believe, because leaders demonstrate their commitment to it, they lead it, they trust their employees to carry on doing it and the employees trust their leaders to allow them to.

Usually I close my column with a message or a plea; this week I hope I don’t have to.

* David Wright is chief executive of the Manufacturing Advisory Service West Midlands.

towards excellence>>

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