Interview with Masaaki Imai and his Focus on KAIZEN™ Continuous Improvement


Born in Tokyo in 1930, Masaaki Imai is the pioneer of the KAIZEN™ approach. In 1985, he founded the Kaizen Institute Consulting Group with the goal of advising companies on the implementation of the continuous improvement system and tools. Find out more about his professional career and his vision of this methodology in this interview.

How and when was the KAIZEN™ methodology born and why did you take the step to ‘professionalize’ it in 1985?

I was fortunate to represent Japan Productivity Center in the United States as part of the post-World War II rebuild. During this early part of my career, I hosted numerous Japanese business leaders as part of their research into American companies, and consequently, I developed strong relationships with them.

Due to these visits to American companies with Japanese executives, I started to gain insight into the differences between American and Japanese businesses. On my return to Japan, I was continuously invited into the factories of the Japanese leaders I met which deepened my understanding of what it entails to become an effective and efficient company.

I suppose I was always eager to learn, and therefore, kept notes of my observations and reflections while being exposed to all sorts of business practices. As my career developed, I also gained access to more top managers in Japan, and abroad, through an executive recruitment company I founded.

The oil crisis in the 1970s was a turning point for many businesses in the West when they realized that Japanese companies coped much better than they did during this period of turmoil. The competitiveness of Japanese companies intrigued many senior management teams outside of Japan; some even suspected Japanese businesses had a magical, mystical or mysterious way of operating.

However, the history of Toyota Motor Corporation clearly shows that methods of continuous improvement have been developed over many decades. After studying these practices, I was convinced about the transformational power of continuous improvement as a systematic methodology – KAIZEN™. Due to my unique insight and experience, I saw the opportunity to introduce KAIZEN™ to the rest of the world.

Over many decades, KAIZEN™ has been established in organizations within all sectors. Can it be extrapolated to any kind of company, regardless of its sector, or is there any specific sector in which it is more difficult to apply?

KAIZEN™ can be applied in any type of organization, regardless of sector. However, the KAIZEN™ principles must be understood and practiced, specifically by senior management, thereby demonstrating their commitment to change-for-the-better at the Gemba (the real place in the company where value is created for the customer).

People often think that the service sector, for example banking or professional services, or functions such as sales and marketing or R&D, are more difficult because the processes are less visible. But, once you understand the KAIZEN™ principles and gain the expertise of applying the appropriate improvement tools, then any situation can be improved, backed by breakthrough results. Any sector and any function, within any organization, can achieve the complete benefits when they employ a company-wide KAIZEN™ business system.

One of the keys to KAIZEN™ is to react quickly. Has the current context increased this need?

A crisis usually forces us to mitigate and manage risks quickly, and with COVID-19, the survival instincts of many organizations kicked in. This ongoing pandemic has surely highlighted the need to reflect on our practices within a company: how efficient, effective and flexible are we really? Companies who have implemented a KAIZEN™ business system would generally be well-prepared for such a crisis. They would still be profitable regardless of the situation. This is what Toyota Motor Corporation showed the world during the oil crisis in the 1970s and during later recessions. Most businesses can make a profit during an upturn, but very few can sustain it in a downturn. The simultaneous flexibility and stability of the KAIZEN™ approach helps companies survive during the more challenging parts of economic cycles and thrive during disruptive periods.

Due to the pandemic, many companies and employees are uncertain. How can the KAIZEN™ methodology be adapted to this new situation we are living in worldwide?

Adapting to the ‘new normal’ requires companies to be innovative with products, processes, and even with how they lead their people. However, this must be driven by reconnecting with the changed needs of customers. Communicating continuously with customers to better understand their new requirements is the starting point of applying KAIZEN™ in this new situation.

Toyota started their journey of continuous improvement because of a crisis and the need to become better in a new situation. A crisis can certainly be an important opportunity to create the ‘new normal‘ that can dictate the future of the company.

How can KAIZEN™ be applied in the era of virtual working?

As virtual work requires a new standard of operating, this new way must be designed, tested, verified, standardized, and improved. This is the KAIZEN™ way. Designing, providing, and using technology without a KAIZEN™ mindset will lead to more complexity, frustrations, defects, and can slow down the end-to-end process.

With the rapid spread of ever-evolving technology, it is vital that companies continuously analyze the valued-added aspects of business and increase their Gemba-orientation, even if work is done virtually. It would be a grave mistake to assume that the virtual workplace automatically eliminates Muda.

What new skills do current leaders need?

Flexibility and adaptability are required to manage the disruption and constant change during this crisis. This is where KAIZEN™ managers have an advantage because flexibility and adaptability is already embedded in their thinking and daily habits. They can deal more effectively and efficiently with the crisis than managers who are not used to change.

Apart from learning the hard skills of working in a virtual workplace, the softer skills will always be prominent in KAIZEN™. Leading people in a respectful way by empowering them to solve the new problems they are facing will develop trust in the people, processes and strategy of a company. Really caring about employees and their communities in these times builds credibility, loyalty, and future commitment.

What about employees?

Without the engagement of people during these times of turmoil, a business will struggle to survive. Excellent teams will come together, focused on a common goal for the company. The level of staff engagement is directly related to the culture created and led by senior management. Employees can only follow where their leaders are going.

During a downturn, it is also an ideal time to further train people, even virtually. Non-productive time can be utilized to enhance the skill of employees, and this people development can future-proof an organization as the improvement gains can take the company to a next level of competitiveness once capacity is filled again. Employees not required at the Gemba can always be involved in community work.

A KAIZEN™ environment creates a higher level of engagement and motivation. Even during difficult circumstances like this, employees tend to retain and increase ownership of their workplace and remain engaged with KAIZEN™ implementation.

You say that not a single day should go by without making improvements, however small, in an organization. Has the current global context accelerated this process or do changes have to be small and gradual?

The disruptive impact on processes will lead to more breakthrough KAIZEN™ events in many teams in their search for improved ways of operating. There would be an urgency, especially in marketing and sales teams, to develop a stronger growth mindset as decreased revenue would have created serious concerns. But regardless of embarking on larger breakthrough projects, small, incremental improvements will and should continue even during the crisis.

A KAIZEN™ culture means improvements are made everywhere, every day by everyone. To create this culture it is required a management system to support the implementation. Without this framework, managing many new breakthrough events, and simultaneously creating and maintaining a KAIZEN™ culture, would be very challenging.

Even though you claim that the capability to create and sustain a KAIZEN™ culture is not a matter of nationality, but of mentality, do you think there are countries where their societal mental structure makes it more complicated to learn and apply KAIZEN™? In particular, I would like to know your assessment of Mediterranean countries such as Spain.

It is about the commitment by senior management to become excellent through the application of KAIZEN™, to be Gemba-oriented, and to be customer-focused. These are behaviors and mindsets that can be learned. Not all Japanese companies apply KAIZEN™ and Spanish companies can certainly achieve KAIZEN™ maturity.

All cultures, companies and countries have their own mental structures, values, and subsequent habits. The power of the KAIZEN™ spirit is that it can transcend all of these challenges to create a new way of behaving, thinking, working and living.

How can we achieve the goals and commitments we have made?

Achieving the intended results starts with a clear and visible strategy from senior management. But for people to commit to these goals, they also must be involved through the Hoshin Kanri (strategic deployment) process. Without people’s involvement and input, energy will soon drain from a team and a dysfunctional and irreverent culture will prevail.

Fulfilling strategic goals requires self-discipline from everyone and this can only be achieved if managers are committed to implementing KAIZEN™ and involving everyone in the process.

How do you predict the future of management? Do you think that the root of a company’s management needs to remain fixed over the decades?

I am confident in saying that without practicing KAIZEN™, companies are not pursuing their full potential. I have seen companies over the years transform the way they lead and manage due to the guidance of KAIZEN™ consultants. However, I would say only a small percentage of companies across the globe exhibits senior management commitment to the KAIZEN™ way and implements the KAIZEN™ business system organization-wide.

Traditional management is deeply entrenched in organizations worldwide due to the way managers are trained and their subsequent preconceptions. In my new book, Strategic KAIZEN™, I explore the difference between traditional companies and KAIZEN™ companies.

It requires a departure from only assessing success based on financial results and shareholder satisfaction. Profitability is a result of the processes in a company. Successful companies will assess their processes from a holistic point of view, not only financial. My third KAIZEN™ book will provide answers on how to do this.

What characteristics will define successful companies during this new decade?

I would say that successful companies would be implementing the KAIZEN™ approach, fully committed and supported by the CEO, and striving to shorten the distance between customers and Gemba.

Many companies are trying to be lean, but today, not many companies are practicing it effectively. My new book talks about how companies can employ the KAIZEN™ approach strategically, how to achieve the summit of Continuous Improvement through FSL™ (flow, synchronization and levelling), and how to assess the current FSL™ status.

FSL™ provides the answers on how to be a sustainable, competitive, and profitable KAIZEN™ company. Successful companies will have the stability, flexibility, and ability to transform through a crisis like COVID-19 with strength and health; not just surviving but excelling during these challenging times.

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