Guest Post: Reports of Kaizen’s Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Mark’s note: Today’s vacation post is from my good friend Dan Markovitz, who normally blogs here.  Listen to my podcasts with him here and here.

By Dan Markovitz:

You’d think by now we’d be past this sort of nonsense that passes for journalism.

In a recent Fortune magazine article detailing the troubles faced by Sharp, the author claims that:

The once lauded “kaizen” system, implementing constant refinements to improve quality by tweaking the production process, mimicked world-wide, is now discredited in one view. “The Japanese business model has reached a dead-end,” writes Yasuyuki Maruyama, senior researcher at the Yomiuri Research Institute in a recent report.

That’s right: a prestigious and respected business publication has conflated kaizen—a tool—with a business model a company might pursue.

I won’t bother pointing out the obvious fact that kaizen isn’t solely employed in the fields of manufacturing and production.

The more significant issue is that kaizen isn’t the Japanese business model, any more than “maximizing shareholder value” is the American business model. Further, ascribing Sharp’s problems—or Sony’s, or Olympus’s, or Panasonic’s—to the relentless pursuit of quality, without considering other factors such as leadership, the rising yen, cultural insularity, etc. is absurd. I’m surprised that article didn’t trot out the hoary fallacy that just-in-time production has caused the downfall of these electronics giants.

Moreover, kaizen is a powerful tool that has been, and continues to be, used to deliver higher quality products and services at lower costs. How can kaizen be “discredited” when the story of the American auto industry stands as a stark example of what happens when a company doesn’t seek to improve? How can it be discredited when hospitals that deploy kaizen lower costs and patient mortality.

I think it’s sad that after all these years-after Deming and Imai, after Toyota and Wiremold—so many people are so eager to put the nail in the coffin of lean thinking and the tools that go with it.

Dan Markovitz is the founder of TimeBack Management, a consulting firm that radically improves the performance of individuals and teams.   He blogs at www.timebackmanagement.com and tweets as @timeback. He is also author of the Shingo Award winning book  A Factory of One: Applying Lean Principles to Banish Waste and Improve Your Personal Performance.


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Dan Markovitz

Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that radically improves operational speed and efficiency by applying lean concepts to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. He also lectures on A3 thinking at the Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business. Dan is a frequent speaker and presenter at conferences, and has consulted to organizations as diverse as Camelbak, Clif Bar, Abbott Vascular, WL Gore & Associates, Intel, the City of Menlo Park, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. His book, A Factory of One, was honored with a Shingo Research Award in 2013. Dan has also published articles in the Harvard Business Review blog, Quality Progress, Industry Week magazine, Reliable Plant magazine, and Management Services Journal, among other magazines. All of these articles are available for download on the Resources page. Earlier in his career, he held management positions in product marketing at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger, where he worked in sales, product marketing, and product development. He also has experience as an entrepreneur, having founded his own skateboarding footwear company. Dan lived in Japan for four years and is fluent in Japanese. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

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