The most important basic principles and critical success factors for Kaizen teams (you may call then Small Group Activities, DMAIC teams, KVP teams or whatever) are:

  1. Working according to a structured problem-solving approach, somehow based upon the Plan-Do-Check-Act circle, thus preventing ‘jumping to conclusions’
  2. Working through those steps with a bottom up approach; which is fundamentally different for most of the Western companies where ‘experts’ tend to bring solutions top down into the organization.

What is wrong with top-down solutions?

  • Basically they can be of high quality, but mostly they are not. Since they have been developed by an expert, they carry an expert view, which is not necessarily a 360 degree view of the whole situation. Typically it could be a very technology based solution. Think of the design of a traditional machine: an operator would design it different, a maintenance engineer also!
  • Even if it is the ultimate quality solution, it still can lack commitment of those who have to implement this solution (the famous ‘not invented here’ syndrome…)

What’s different in the Japanese approach?

Generally speaking, our Japanese colleagues tend to work, travel and decide in groups. If a problem occurs, it is almost a natural behavior to consult several team members, but also people of different ‘disciplines’ to get a 360 degree picture of the problem. Unless everybody understands the problem, solutions are not being discussed. Everybody seams to understand there is no use for discussing solutions before that point. For a Western person it can be amazing, even frustrating to see how the group keeps on discussing ‘nitty-gritty details’ instead of quickly fixing the problem…

Once the group has gone through all the details and everybody has given input ánd understanding they come up amazingly easy with sometimes completely ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions or most powerful solutions yet of unknown simplicity. Compare this (again generally speaking) to the Western approach: we would quickly think of a ‘good but importantly quick’ or ‘cheap’ solution, and solve the problematic details later while implementing. The result: increasing complexity during implementation to handle all new problems (not seen before), frustrations (“I knew it wouldn’t work”), running out of budget and time etc. Fighting between disciplines instead of cooperation etc.

Why do Japanese (and many other Asians) work in teams, consensus based?

Until the recent days this was literally a way to survive. Large parts of the country where rural areas where communities where depending on agricultural activities to feed themselves and the nation. Japan has little natural resources like coal, oil, gas, ore. The main food was (and still is) is rice and fish. Catching fish and farming rice are both labor intensive and more important: teamwork is needed. To have a rice plantation one needs access to an irrigation system. The water is floating from terrace to terrace. So if you would have a quarrel with your neighbor you might end up having no water on your terrace next day… In days of too little or too much water it is crucial to find solutions where upstream ánd downstream partners equally participate in benefits ánd risks.

Can you imagine, if year after year you would have to feed 6 or 9 mouth, how delicate this is? If óne jumps out of line, it could be killing… this season to his neighbor, next season to yourselves; a matter of natural selection to become excellent in this ‘skill’ of sharing mutual interests. The success of those communities depended on their ability to share knowledge ánd the benefits resulting from it. This explains why in Japan it is a natural behavior of the individual to put the company’s interest befóre the personal interest. ‘If the company is doing well, that is well for me; if I contribute to the success of my company, I contribute to my own successes’. It seams that somehow in developing those skills during thousands of years they experienced the need to be very careful with their resources.

You do nót change a system, unless you know what problem you are going to solve, how you are going to do so and what the expected results will be. If you make a mistake you might spent to many labor on a solution that does not work. Result: Part of the community will dye by starvation. This may also explain why the Japanese are so fond of standardization. It is their way to make sure that delicate systems with very narrow tolerances to keep them in balance, do not get disturbed, by someone doing something out of the working standard. I don’t know anything about rice-farming, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find all kind of visual indicators about how to act with different water-levels etc. to make sure every body working in the fields would exactly know what to do and how to maintain the optimal water level in every season.

I’m very curious whether there is anybody out there who can give us more insight is this subject??

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