Japan gemba visit – the spirit of kaizen

The third site that I visited on my tour with Makoto in April demonstrated a deep practice of kaizen (continuous improvement) and a philosophy of waste elimination for global sustainability.

(Update – 5th June 2015- I have been asked to keep the photos and name of this company private due to corporate policy, so I have updated this post to comply with this request. This company should be proud of it’s approach to Lean management and production. I appreciate the local efforts this organization is making and the openness our guide showed to us on this tour.)

Company overview

This company specializes in industrial copy machines and corporate automation equipment (faxes, printers, high speed copiers). I visited their plant just outside of Tokyo.

The director of the continuous improvement department spent the morning with us, giving us an overview of the company, sharing some examples of kaizen and job training, and taking us on a tour of the factory floor of the facility.

“Waste” is waste – recycle and reuse

As of 1999, the company became a “no garbage” facility, and in 2000 achieved a 100% recycle rate. Their high-speed copiers use 60% recycled parts from older machines.

In Japan, copiers are for lease, rather than ownership, so the company can ensure that all older copiers are brought back to the facility to be recycled and repurposed for updated machines. They recycle 100% of old copiers – either by refurbishing them or recycling the raw material.

Kaizen is now part of their DNA

In 1998 in response to the threat of moving manufacturing off-shore to China and a shift in customer demand (from ownership to services on demand), the company invested in kaizen as a strategy to decrease costs and increase innovation. They started an employee suggestion process in 1998 and have since grown in their application of kaizen thinking.

In a video story by NHK World News called “Brainpower Factory”, one of the most senior leaders at the company described that because “people make the results, we must take care of and respect them”. The role of managers “is to help workers bring out creativity and enthusiasm” for their work.

Kaizen types

The Kaizen Office Director explained how kaizen works at the company and that there are two primary types of kaizen: top down and bottom up.

Top down (breakthrough) kaizen

Top down kaizen are ideas, strategies or goals that come from senior management. New orders or targets are given once every six month. Typically, a group taskforce is put together to help work on achieving the goal.

Bottom-up (daily) kaizen

Bottom up kaizen are ideas that come from the frontline workers. These ideas are small ideas for constant daily improvement. Workers use simple standardized forms to submit their ideas. Frontline employees are expected to submit 3 ideas per month.

The team leader’s role is to listen to workers to see what their ideas are (there is a ration of 1:10 lead to employee).

Managers are held accountable for supporting the development of ideas. I saw a visual display on the shop floor that showed where the improvement ideas were coming from (which managers had staff submitting how many idea). The A4s with the implemented kaizen are also displayed on boards for everyone to see.

All kaizen proposals are celebrated, even if they are not chosen to be implemented. For kaizen that are implemented, there can be three staff members who are given credit for the improvement: the person who saw the opportunity or problem, the person who suggested the idea, and the person who did the experiment or made the actual improvement. All of these roles could be the same or different people. A card on a A4 sized paper highlights the photos and names of the 1-3 people who contributed to the kaizen, as well as a brief description in words and pictures of the improvement.

Four times a year the shop floor and back office functions work on kaizen together and everyone (including the factory head) are expected to submit 3 kaizen ideas.

Make kaizen easy

What the Director considers unique about Ricoh is that they have made it very easy to do daily kaizen.

The team leaders has the authorization to make decisions quickly related to anything that can be done to get the job done more easily; therefore, the response time is very quick.

This is in contrast to many traditional Japanese companies where you have to go through many levels of management to get permission.

Principles for kaizen

The three principles for daily kaizen that the director described are:

  1. Design better processes that are “kind and easy” – to make work easier ergonomically and to make the work easier to learn.
  2. Kaizen has no final destination – there is always room for improvement
  3. The goal of kaizen is to develop people – develop kaizen leaders

The kaizen masters are the management leaders and the teachers are the line/section leaders. However, they still have a team of 12 internal Kaizen Office facilitators and coaches who help support kaizen and training in the organization

Kaizen mindset

Some reflections about kaizen from the Director that stood out for me:

  • “Kaizen is part of your job. You should be able to create a culture that to do your work is to make your work better. Kaizen should not be seen as something separate.”
  • “Kaizen isn’t big. It’s about making YOUR life easier.”
  • “The goal of kaizen is to motivate people.”
  • The challenge is “how you make this your culture. About how you make it a habit. Then you start opening yourself up to see bigger things.”
  • “Every proposal is a good proposal. Don’t critique it.”
  • “Don’t go outside for benchmarking. Kaizen is based on what the company values and what it wants to being to its employees.”
  • “Persist with kaizen. People will get bored if things are static. You need to constantly evolve. Move sections, go in with fresh eyes”.

Factory tour

On our tour of the factory floor, many applications of Lean management system were evident including the use of andon, morning meeting huddles, use of visual systems for communicating the status of production, detailed standard work, and 5S throughout the facility.

Automatic Guided Vehicles

Throughout the facility, we saw an inventive solution for their Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGV) that was a series of small kaizen over many years. AGVs are the robotic vehicles that can deliver products and supplies throughout the plant.

Ricoh first bought an AGV in 19080, but it was very expensive. In 1998 they decided to use their own innovation to improve the process by putting magnetic tape on the floor for the AGV to read; however, this too was quite expensive.

In 2007 the company had the idea to use their own reading technology (from the copiers) to read basic black tape on the floor, and put a basic laptop and USB on the machine. The machine is made of PCV piping and a simple motor. They are constantly adding new functions to improve the process for the employees – and this is a frequent point for daily kaizen.

We saw the AGV deliver products to and from the factory floor, including bringing a massive copier off the line when it was finished.

Kaizen inspiration

It was inspiring to see a company that has imbedded the spirit and process for kaizen in it’s company culture in less than twenty year. It was also impressive to see the constant innovation and implementation of production principles of TPS throughout the factory. I love that they have achieved 100% recycling while still maintaining the highest levels of quality, cost and service.

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I am making a visit to a Japanese hospital and another Toyota factory in southern Japan in two weeks, as well as will be writing about the Australian Lean conferences in upcoming posts. Sign up to receive updates of new content. And, as always, i welcome your comments.




Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 120 Articles
Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.