Kaizen and revolutionary principle: A marriage of opposing world views?

The government in Ethiopia is keenly introducing a concept that has little to no resemblance with its revolutionary principles

By Taye Negussie (PhD), Tsedale Lemma and Emnet Assefa

Since Oct. 2009, shortly after the introduction of a nationwide Business Process Re-engineering (BPR), an idea introduced to bring radical changes among state institutions but, in the process, virtually stalled them for months and now widely deemed to be a failure, the Ethiopian government started advocating the idea of kaizen–a Japanese management philosophy–among private and state owned companies; the idea was first brought to the attention of Ethiopia’s late PM Meles Zenawi in 2008.

Subsequently, Ethiopia has set up the Ethiopian Kaizen Institute (EKI) in Nov. 2011 with the help of JAICA, the Japanese foreign aid arm, which has developed a three year project to help medium and large size companies owned by both state and private businesses improve their management skills and productivity.

EKI claims it has so far trained over 150 companies on the basics of the Kaizen philosophy and its application, of which 30 companies have been fully implementing the principles. In Oct. 2012, EKI awarded three private companies: Zenith GebsEshet Ethiopia Lmtd, Maru Metal Industries and Kadisco Chemical Industries, as best models in implementing Kaizen. In an exclusive interview with this magazine, EKI Director General, Getahun Tadesse, says these companies have registered 30 – 50% production increase after applying Kaizen.

However, in an interview with an EKI publication, Taddesse Haile, State Minister of Industry, mentioned lack of understanding of the philosophy of kaizen as the major challenge Ethiopia is facing today. His views were seconded by Getahun,who candidly admitted that there was a general lack of understanding of the word kaizen itself, which he said the EKI would be working hard to familiarize.  Taddesse asserted it is important that before anything happens, the basic philosophy of kaizen itself is well understood by the business community.

 The birth of Kaizen

The original meaning of the Japanese word Kaizen,(改善), stands for ‘slow and steady improvement’ or ‘gradual change for the better’, in its broadest sense,and purely refers to the “philosophy of life”. Its assumption lies in the Buddhist understanding of life to be inherently the experience of suffering. According to this school of thought, humans undergo suffering because everything is the result of ever-changing and interrelated conditions and causes. Our confusion and suffering will come to an end, when the causes of our suffering are identified and extinguished.

Its application demands strong conviction in the ethics of humanism,which has its base on the belief of human nobility. In this term Kaizen is essentially a self-evolving process or practical wisdom which unfolds in the course of living or working.

Industrial application

Kaizen was introduced to the industrial and latter on to other working venues after World War II while Japan and the American occupation forces were earnestly engaged in the task of rebuilding the Japanese industry.

In this context therefore Kaizen should not be viewed as a mere management technique to improve productivity. It rather signifies the daily activities of each and every employee as well as management staff that is meant to humanize the workplace, reduce overly hard work (“muri”), help workers improve their activities,and mark and remove waste in the business process.

The successful implementation of kaizen is based on the active involvement of the entire workers as well as management staff across spans of activities with special emphasis placed on nurturing the culture of continual small improvements, which overtime would yield large results in the “form of compound productivity improvement”.

Its methodology consists of “making changes and monitoring results, then adjusting”. And as such it rules out any large-scale pre-planning and project scheduling.

The Toyota Production system is often viewed as a model in the industrial application of kaizen. It is a customary practice in Toyota Company that in case of any irregularity in the production process, all workers are expected to stop the moving production line and engage along with their supervisors in scrutinizing and examining the causes of the irregularity and suggest solutions to address the problem.

Kaizen’s cycle of activity involves six phases: standardize an operation and activities, measure the operation, gauge measurement against requirements, innovate to meet requirements and increase productivity, standardize the new, improved operations, and finally,continue the cycle ad infinitum. This is known as the Shewahrt cycle, or Deming cycle.

As of Recent, the philosophy of kaizen is spreading across the world.  But questions remain o nwhether it can be adopted outright across cultures and societies.

The late PM Meles once said in an interview with a state owned news agency, “some people would think that Kaizen is a cultural attribute or at least works with certain cultural value. Others would think Kaizen is a management philosophy that is capable of being introduced in any cultural settings.”

However, many scholars in the field believe that there are certain minimal conditions which have to be met for successful implementation of kaizen. This includes conducive political framework, harmonious social relations, compassionate and sympathetic attitude, capacity to take individual as well as collective responsibility, and ability to work collectively or high social capital to mention a few.

Kaizen in Ethiopia–feasible?

Given the above minimal conditions along with the currently prevailing political, cultural and economic conditions, what guarantee is there for kaizen to succeed?

Although increasing presence of private businesses can be visibly seen, Ethiopia’s economy is an economy largely driven by excessive state investment that is continually crowding out private investments.In such an economy the prevalence of the following major stumbling blocks will make the outright adoption of kaizen difficult, if not impossible. These include, but not limited to, the following factors:

The government, which is the major investor through endowment companies in the country,has an opaque ideology of revolutionary democracy. It is self-evident that the very term “revolutionary” implies a radical and wholesome transformation which is the antithesis of the idea of slow and incremental change that is the governing idea of kaizen.

Centralized long-term planning system. As shown above,the methodology of kaizen involves making continual small changes, monitoring and adjusting as opposed to the practice of stubborn long-term planning and project scheduling the government in Ethiopia is known for. Take for example the much professed government’s five years Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP).

The culture of elitism and the top-down approach.The tradition of elitism in which authorities habitually count far more than public ideas is a persistent feature of Ethiopian political culture. It is, therefore, no wonder that, despite government’s claim of public participation, many of its plans and practices hardly reflect the voices of many relevant stakeholders particularly the public. An illustrative example of this would be the recently much-acclaimed mantra of “Meles’s vision”which followed his unexpected death in August 2012. This undoubtedly goes against the cardinal kaizen principle of an all-out participation by every concerned stakeholder.

Weak commitment and concern to public issues.  This magazine is of the opinion that the customary calling of the Ethiopian government personnel as “public servant” is a misnomer. In fact, judging from the behavior of the majority of government employees, it would be more appropriate to call them “public lords”. In the face of such weak commitment to public duties, which is mainly attributed to low and inappropriate incentives, hostile working environment, and the subsequent low morale, implementing kaizen would be just a fantasy.

The tradition of starting from zero.The history of regime changes in Ethiopia demonstrates that the first and most important task of any in-coming government is to vehemently discredit and dismantle everything that bears the mark of its predecessor and go to square one with its own likings.Such type of disruptive tradition can barely be compatible with the philosophy and practice of kaizen, which develops through years and years of continual persistence.

Last but not least, infatuation with policy fad. As of recent, the Ethiopian government appears to be too busy with experimenting and discarding a number of management and development models (like that of its free-market economic system, developmental state policy, BPR,  and many more). It is uncertain if the current initiation of kaizen philosophy will be yet again another passing fad in succession.

That said, the encouraging results that the EKI claimed were scored by the few Ethiopian companies applying kaizen is a welcome news (may be) for other Ethiopian private companies, which, like their state counterparts,  are as much victims of a sluggish progress that eventually renders them ineffective and unproductive except in their first years.What should be noted by both is that, Kaizen or no kaizen, productivity and quality improvement are at their best when they are inherently institutionalized. That requires many other things than just a Kaizen, which, in the words of Getahun himself,  “is not a tool,” but “a philosophy.”

  Editor’s note: The role of culture in the process  of economic development and management is  widely discussed in another article in this edition of ‘Society and Economy’ column on p. 20-21.

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