[FOUNTAIN]‘Kaizen’: the key to recovery

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[FOUNTAIN]‘Kaizen’: the key to recovery

As exotic as it might sound, “kaizen” is an English word adapted from the Japanese. It may not be found in a dictionary, but it has become a household word among those in academia and the business sector. While there are words for reform and restructuring in English, kaizen is used to describe the extraordinary endeavors by Japanese companies to eliminate inefficiency.
The indisputable master of kaizen is Toyota Motors. Thanks to aggressive kaizen, Toyota’s high-end Lexus line gained worldwide recognition.
Toyota-style kaizen is the latest rage in Japan. Not just companies but government agencies, hospitals and schools are adopting the kaizen that changed Toyota Motors. The core of Toyota’s reform is made up of organization, order, hygiene and sanitation, or the 4S, as it is called in Japan, because the four factors start with the S sound in Japanese.
A hospital has improved efficiency by rearranging its reception to resemble Toyota’s manufacturing line. A junior college that based its curriculum on the 4S principle has seen its entire graduating class successfully find jobs in a notoriously bad job market. Newsstands in subway stations have rearranged magazines and newspapers to streamline cashiers’ actions. Restaurants have carefully calculated and reduced the number of times refrigerators and rice cookers are opened, cutting electricity bills considerably. The Japanese are thinking hard to wring out the last bit of inefficiency.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, who successfully revived the deficit-ridden carmaker, says the engine of the Japanese economy is the “gemba,” or the field. Mr. Ghosn meant the continuous kaizen created a perfectly synched production “gemba.” The Japanese economy is about to exit from its long and winding slump. What has made the sluggish market rebound is the competitive power of world-class manufacturers. Kaizen at the frontline of production brought about the miraculous revival of the overall economy.
The lesson is universal. I recently heard a businessman saying how inefficiency at his plant is hurting his business, but he had an epiphany. Sales haven’t improved, but now he is working on improving profit margins by eliminating inefficient elements. The market is undeniably slow. If the market cannot change, why not change the company’s structure with kaizen?

by Nahm Yoon-ho

The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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