Philosophy of business
The word Kaizen comprises two Japanese words: kai, which means “change”, and zen, which means “better”. Despite being able to trace its lineage back to the first Buddhist monks who wanted to simplify life, the connection between Kaizen and business began in earnest after World War II, said Tsuyoshi Kikuchi, EKI’s chief advisor on Kaizen in Ethiopia, who is contracted by JICA and has worked on various development projects in Africa spanning a 30-year period. This fusion of philosophical musings and business ambition was a result of the recovering Japanese economy and its companies having to make do with scant resources immediately after the War, Kikuchi says. A number of associations which actively promoted Kaizen and its brand of production management technology came into being . The results were impressive.
“Kaizen in the manufacturing workplace has been a driving force in Japan’s industrial development,” Kikuchi says. Nowadays the majority of Japanese companies practise Kaizen; Toyota is one of the best known proponents. In Ethiopia the idea is that lessons and methodologies which proved so successful for Japanese companies and enabled many to become world beaters can benefit Ethiopian companies at the very start of their business journeys.
“Manufacturing is the engine of economic progress so I view Kaizen as part of the foundation for sustainable development in Ethiopia,” Kikuchi says.
JICA has introduced programmes of quality and productivity improvement through Kaizen in six other African countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and Kenya. But it is in Ethiopia that the philosophy has really taken hold: Ethiopia is the only country with a dedicated Kaizen institute.
Top-level government support and funding directed to the EKI, enabling its staff to grow from 10 to 100, is another reason why Kaizen is flourishing in Ethiopia, Kikuchi says.
The late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, was a particular fan of Kaizen and pushed for its coming to Ethiopia through JICA.“Kaizen is the philosophy we like, we agree with, and we believe can make a lot of difference in Ethiopia,” said Meles, whose legacy still holds enormous sway in Ethiopia’s corridors of power.
Kaizen and its tenets will be written into Ethiopia’s next five-year Growth and Transformation Plan set to start in 2016, said Getahun Tadesse, EKI’s Director General.
For all the talk of philosophy, the effects on the ground are matter of fact and practical. Inside Peacock Shoe Factory, distinctive turquoise strips with yellow margins indicate pathways across factory floors; tools are allocated clearly labelled places from where to hang on walls; boxes are stacked neatly in rooms in which diagrams indicate where particularly items are found. It might not sound revolutionary but it wasn’t always like this.
“One year ago it was very different,” said Haileyesus Habte, head of Peacock’s cutting department. A notice board showing before and after photos starkly illustrated the situation before the EKI team got to work: chaotic rooms crammed with clutter in which a Buddhist monk would have felt particularly uncomfortable; and in which finding what you needed took an age, Haileyesus says.
The resulting improvements and time saved means he now no longer has to run around the factory to get everything done.. Another advantage of Kaizen dissemination throughout the factory workforce, he noted, is workers can be instructed and left to organise their work spaces themselves without each one needing supervision.
A fundamental tenet of Kaizen is the organisation of workers into small groups of about five to six persons. Each group is called a Kaizen Promotion Team (KPT) and meets each day to identify and discuss problems or procedures that could be improved. This forms feedback passed on to middle management to consider whether action is warranted.
Sitting on a stool in the finished upper section of the factory floor was Gizachew Sifeta, his fingers encased in protective leather as he sewed, with great speed, an upper leather panel onto the sides of a shoe base.
Gizachew described a previous problem whereby sometimes the holes in an upper leather panel didn’t match the holes in the sides of the shoe base, which left a tiny flap of upper unsecured. His KPT told management about the problem. Now each upper is checked to have the right number of holes before it is sent to the finished upper section. An important quality control check but also production streamlining with beneficial consequences, especially for workers paid per pair of shoes finished.