Continuous Improvement

AuthorR. Inman, Monica Turner
Pages132-134

Page 132

Continuous improvement in a management context means a never-ending effort to expose and eliminate root causes of problems. Usually, it involves many incremental or small-step improvements rather than one overwhelming innovation. From a Japanese perspective continuous improvement is the basis for their business culture. Continuous improvement is a philosophy, permeating the Japanese culture, which seeks to improve all factors related to the transformation process (converting inputs into outputs) on an ongoing basis. It involves everyone, management and labor, in finding and eliminating waste in machinery, labor, materials and production methods.

The Japanese word for continuous improvement, kaizen, is often used interchangeably with the term continuous improvement. From the Japanese character kai, meaning change, and the character zen, meaning good, taken literally, it means improvement.

Although kaizen is a Japanese concept, many U.S. firms have adopted it with considerable success by combining the best of traditional Japanese practices with the strengths of Western business practice, in other words, by merging the benefits of teamwork with the creativity of the individual. Some refer to its implementation in the West as lean manufacturing since, when combined with the principles of just-in-time (JIT), kaizen or continuous improvement forms the foundation for the concept of lean manufacturing.

HISTORY OF CONTINUOUSIMPROVEMENT

Following the defeat of Japan in World War II, America wanted to encourage the nation to rebuild. As with the Marshall Plan in Europe, General MacArthur asked a number of leading experts from the U.S. to visit Japan and advise them on how to proceed with the rebuilding process. As history would have it, one of these experts was Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Deming was a statistician with experience in census work, so he came to Japan to set up a census. While in Japan, he noticed some of the difficulties being experienced by some of the newly emerging industries. Many Japanese manufacturers were faced with huge difficulties stemming from a lack of investment funds, raw materials, and components, and from the low morale of the nation and the workforce. Based on his recent experience in reducing waste in U.S. war manufacture, he began to offer his advice.

By the mid-1950s, he was a regular visitor to Japan. He taught Japanese businesses to concentrate their attention on processes rather than results; concentrate the efforts of everyone in the organization on continually improving imperfection at every stage of the process. By the 1970s many Japanese organizations had embraced Deming's advice and were very quickly enjoying the benefits of their actions. Most notable is the Toyota Production System, which spawned several business improvement practices utilized heavily in Japan, including JIT and Total Quality Management (TQM).

Despite the fact that much of the foundation of continuous management and other Japanese concepts originated in the U.S., Western firms showed little interest until the late 1970s and early 1980s. By then the success of Japanese companies caused other firms to begin to reexamine their own approaches. Hence, kaizen or...

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