Thursday, April 20, 2006

Gemba Kaizen by Masaaki Imai

These days, many companies are looking for ways to improve the bottom line. However, most managers and executives mistakenly assume that they first have to spend a lot of money in order to realize substantial savings later on. For example, they may believe they have to invest in the latest electronic wizardry, high-speed industrial machinery, or expensive software systems that all promise dramatic company-wide improvements. But according to at least one school of thought, there's a much simpler and cost-effective way of streamlining operations and cutting down on waste. That's the focus of Gemba Kaizen by Masaaki Imai.

Gemba Kaizen is something of an anomaly as far as business books go. That is to say, even though it was published back in 1997, it is still extremely relevant and applicable in today's business environment. That's not something that can be said about other nonfiction business books that tend to focus on "flavor-of-the-month" ideas that fall quickly out of style. The only problem with this book's publication date is that it can sometimes be hard to find on bookstore shelves; instead, you'll probably have to order it from the Internet.

Imai is a consultant at the Kaizen Institute and is one of the world's foremost experts on the whole kaizen philosophy. He wrote a groundbreaking book, called, naturally, Kaizen, two decades ago in 1986. That book gave Western managers and executives insight into the whole kaizen concept, which Imai credits as the biggest reason for the sustained worldwide success of Japanese manufacturing companies.

The word kaizen is often translated as "improvement," or, more accurately, "continuous improvement." The idea behind this philosophy is actually quite simple: There is always room to improve in every area of company operations. Those companies that are constantly on the lookout for ways to get better will, in fact, get better, while those companies that make a few improvements here and there and then are satisfied, will eventually get left far behind.

The gemba part of the equation refers to "the workplace," or the "place where value is added." Every company or business in any type of industry has its own unique gemba. For example, the gemba of a writer would be her desk where she sits down to churn out pages and pages of text. The gemba of a factory worker is the assembly line where he spends eight hours per day. A news reporter's gemba is out on the street where the latest story is unfolding. And so on. According to Imai, this is the most important part of any operation, yet, surprisingly, is the place that is most often overlooked by upper management.

In this book, Imai encourages managers to spend more time in gemba and less time in their offices. In fact, Imai says that one of the most effective ways for a manager to spend his or her time is to stand in a single spot and carefully observe what is going on around them. When managers are out in gemba, they will start to notice new problems that they never perceived before, which in turn will lead to brainstorming new solutions and improvements in operations.

Another basic tenet of the gemba kaizen philosophy is the emphasis placed on good housekeeping. A company that is highly organized will operate much more efficiently than one that is in disarray. As an example, consider a maintenance worker who is in charge of fixing machinery in a production factory. If a machine breaks down, it costs the company money because production will obviously be reduced. It's in the best interest of the company to see to it that the machine gets back to working order as quickly as possible. If the maintenance worker has to spend several minutes looking around for the tools required to fix the machine, that's even more downtime and more lost money for the company.

However, if the maintenance worker's tools were neatly organized in a tool box or cabinet, he would quickly be able to locate the ones he needed for a specific job, and would get the machine up and running again in no time. The result when this kind of organization is implemented and maintained throughout the company is a drastic improvement in both efficiency and the bottom line.

According to the gemba kaizen system, there are five distinct steps (the so-called 5S's) in the housekeeping process: sort, straighten, scrub, systematize, and standardize. Imai spends a lot of time describing what is necessary to do in each phase and how today's managers can carry out 5S consistently. I found Imai's explanations in this part of the book, and indeed throughout the entire work, to be extremely clear and helpful.

In all, Imai discusses 16 different principles of the gemba kaizen management philosophy. Some of the other principles include self-discipline, quality circles, accountability, just-in-time production, the need to eliminate the waste of key elements such as time, motion, production, processing, and transportation.

I believe this book is an extremely practical and useful tool that almost any manager can benefit from. It is written in a very concise and clear style, and Imai shows that he deserves every bit of his solid reputation as an expert in gemba kaizen. He presents the ideas of this philosophy with a voice of reason that should be readily apparent even to people who might not be familiar with his previous works.

Unlike a lot of business books out there, Gemba Kaizen doesn't spend a lot of time dwelling on abstract theories and best-case scenarios. Instead, Imai presents the reader with well over 100 examples and numerous case studies from real companies that have benefited from his consultation and advice. Many of the examples deal with well-known companies from around the world, which serves to further legitimize the concepts presented in the book.

Imai is convinced that any company can enjoy a significant turnaround by incorporating the gemba kaizen philosophy into their daily routines. The changes won't be easy, and it will take a lot of discipline to keep things going, but Imai believes the results will be well worth it.

I've seen the way gemba kaizen works from the inside, so I can confidently say that Imai's explanations in this book are enough to get your company started down the path to operating efficiency. As I stated earlier, a lot of management techniques have come and gone over the years, but the gemba kaizen approach is still around and is still used by many powerful corporations the world over, including automotive giant Toyota Motors. If you're looking for a primer on this philosophy, then Gemba Kaizen by Masaaki Imai is an excellent book to start with.

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