Imai on Sustained Excellence

Imai on Sustained Excellence

Following an on-line celebration with Masaaki Imai on his 90th birthday, he was interviewed to capture essential insights from this thought-leader and pioneer. This is the third and final blog in the series, celebrating the inspirational life and work of a man who impacted organizational thinking and behavior across the globe since he wrote Kaizen, the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success (McGraw Hill 1986).

Root-causes of failing to reach excellence 

Imai’s three concepts

During the interview with Masaaki Imai, the question was put to him on why many organizations fail to achieve excellence. He summarized his observations in three critical KAIZEN™ concepts: (i) top management commitment to KAIZEN™, (ii) gemba orientation by all management levels, and (iii) taking the customer seriously. 

The KAIZEN™ approach enables leaders to visit the frontline of the organization in a structured and deliberate way to support and empower people to improve their own processes. All gemba (shop floor or frontline) activities are consequently aligned with a clearly cascaded, customer-centric strategy (the responsibility of top management). The purpose of focusing on gemba by all management levels is not to find culprits and to blame people for the problems in processes – this is not leadership. Gemba-orientation makes problems visible to management; celebrating when problems are seen and solved. 

However, when (internal and external) stakeholder dissatisfaction occurs, the cause is often found in continuous firefighting and recurring problems at gemba. Frustrating delays, defects and rework are some examples. But, these causes are driven by root-causes. Imai’s three concepts are addressing the root-causes of a system (organization) lacking a gemba-oriented, customer-focused leadership and management approach. What the sensei is saying, is that a KAIZEN™ approach identifies and eliminates the deep-seated root-causes to make a culture of excellence possible.

As seen in Imai’s work, change-for-the-better (the root meaning of kaizen) has to start with top management. KAIZEN™ cannot be delegated; it must be owned and habitually led by senior leaders. Just as operators in a KAIZEN™ Business System are responsible for maintaining and improving their equipment, tools, materials, and methods, likewise leaders (at all levels) must also maintain good leaders’ KAIZEN™ practices and enhance their leadership processes. However, these leadership and management processes must first be defined and developed, then standardized, and continuously improved. This requires honest self-reflection, a humbleness and willingness to learn by doing.  

Masaaki Imai stated in the interview that self-conceited managers (arrogance, narcissism, and egotism) is the opposite of an excellence mindset. It destroys motivation and accountability, and prevents a culture of making problems visible so these can be solved. Thus, for KAIZEN™ to be sustained, top management and middle management must lead and manage in a respectful way at the coalface. Decision-making should be with gemba people in the trenches; not for them.

Educational system

Going deeper into identifying some root-causes of this failure to excel, Imai also shone the light on the broader approach to teaching, training, and developing people. Usually people are sent to academic institutions like universities (or other external training providers) to gain knowledge. But this academic-oriented knowledge is often disconnected with the reality of gemba and customers. The KAIZEN™ way requires people development within the organization, at gemba. This long-term educational approach has lost favor at a huge cost. Training within the industry creates a profound understanding of the reality of customer requirements, and how customer value is created within processes (or value streams). This cannot be replaced by classroom training; only complimented.

The KAIZEN™ approach is not against university training at all (Imai himself has often been invited by the world’s renowned universities for lectures and developed rich relationships with academia). Kaizen Institute also practices scientific thinking through the application of PDCA/SDCA methods, structured problems solving, fact-based reasoning, etc. However, in pursuit of excellence, organizations have to develop a robust, internal educational program, executed at gemba for everyone, everywhere in the organization.

When there is a concentrated and concerted effort on developing people within the organization, instead of depending mainly on external training providers, excellence can become a reality. Unlike traditional training programs, Kaizen Institute’s training program has a strong connection with gemba and relevancy to the real work beyond academic learning, but yet, there is still a limitation. Theoretical learning must be well orchestrated with a robust system to develop people who can drive improvement and manage change and this must be done in gemba. The practical learning-by-doing at the frontline has immense power in developing skill, confidence, ideation, and problem-solving techniques. This profound knowledge within an organization brings stability and reliability that can only benefit the customer, something Taiichi Ohno promoted with vigor.

Taiichi Ohno

Masaaki Imai became well-connected with senior managers at Toyota Motor Corporation ever since he hosted influential Japanese business leaders in the US during the 1950s on behalf of the Japan Productivity Center. Imai later met Taiichi Ohno (the mastermind behind the Toyota Production System) and frequently visited him at Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC). Subsequently, a firm bond developed between them to such an extent that they played golf together and shared “many happy moments”. Imai laughed fondly during the interview when he mentioned that Ohno often got the better of him on the golf course. This friendship allowed Imai to really grasp Ohno’s thinking and insights, enabling him to compare Ohno’s methods with business practices he studied across the globe.

They travelled together on speaking engagements due to the keen interest in the KAIZEN™ concepts Imai introduced to the world outside of Japan in his book Kaizen, the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success (published in 1986). Companies often wanted to hear from someone within Toyota and, therefore, Taiichi Ohno accompanied him to the United States, Australia, and New Zealand in the late 1980s. It is no wonder that Ohno’s work is regularly mentioned in Imai’s work; exchanging numerous thoughts on trains, planes, and busses, and back home at TMC.

In Masaaki Imai’s new book, he dedicates a good portion of his writing on his dealings with Taiichi Ohno and how Imai was consulted by Ohno as well.

Imai’s third KAIZEN™ book

It has been a long wait since Imai’s second book, GembaKAIZEN™: A Commonsense, Low-cost Approach to Management, saw the light in 1997. The expanded second edition was released in 2012, but now, at the age of 90, Masaaki Imai completed his trilogy of books regarding his extensive insights into organizational behavior and the impact of KAIZEN™.

In this soon-to-be-published book, Imai addresses the topic of strengthening operational performance by changing from a traditional management system to a KAIZEN™ strategy, implemented through a gemba-oriented and customer-focused top management commitment. The tools provided in this book aim to empower senior leaders to manage and lead their teams based on more than just the financial reporting of a company. Decision-making leading to excellence, has to be fact-based. As Imai stated in his earlier writings, gemba has all the facts. Subsequently, Imai developed a method in his new book to determine the operational status of a company; the real status of the company. 

Imai is advocating a reporting mechanism that portrays the totality of the organization. If we are to take the customer seriously by being gemba-¬oriented through all management layers, a KAIZEN™ approach goes beyond reporting on financial performance which is not always a clear reflection of frontline reality. 

Final reflection

Reflecting on the extensive experience of Masaaki Imai’s six decades of observing and contemplating on organizational behavior, it is striking how this KAIZEN™ pioneer has the ability to simplify the core of what excellence is. It is a top management commitment to a gemba-orientation in order to satisfy the clearly understood needs of the customer.

We wish Masaaki Imai the very best with the release of his new KAIZEN™ book. We are extremely grateful for his immense contribution to making work and life better.

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