Revolutionise your business the Japanese way

Five improvement methods to help managers learn how to make their own enterprise solutions more efficient and competitive.

Some operations-management tools such as lean manufacturing and just in time, which most notably have changed the auto industry, have their roots in Japanese manufacturing practices. A new technical note by Rocio Arenas and Beatriz Muñoz-Seca of the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa at the University of Navarra, in Spain, examines the principles underpinning five Japanese improvement methods to help managers learn how to make their own enterprise solutions more efficient and competitive.

The so-called “5S” philosophy focuses on effective workplace management to reduce waste and non-value-adding activities. It’s about instilling discipline and order in the workplace, and is based on five words beginning with the letter “S”:

Seiri (to sort) aims to remove all extraneous items from the working area, to avoid clutter and distraction.

Seiton (to set in place or straighten) is about having what is needed within easy reach and maximising ergonomic considerations.

Seiso (to shine) involves making everyone responsible for, and conscious of, cleanliness in the workplace. Seiso serves to reduce workplace accidents, while eliminating the risk of product contamination. Regular cleaning also makes it easy to spot malfunctioning tools or equipment.

Seiketsu (to standardise) assimilates an understanding of how workstations should look, feel and function. The goal is for everyone to feel that he or she has contributed to success and will benefit from it.

Shitsuke (to sustain) consists of creating and maintaining the best environment to meet the challenges of sustaining “5S” through visible commitment on the part of management, communication to keep everyone informed, regular audits of “5S” activities, reward and recognition for a job well done, education to reinforce the importance of “5S,” creating the right environment by using a programme detailing what is needed to sustain “5S” and keeping copies of audits and photographs of the workplace for the evidence portfolio.

To implement “5S,” a simple, measurable, positive and inspiring vision that captures the key objectives is required. Once this vision has been established, action lists are easier to generate, because everyone knows what they are aiming to achieve.

There are other Japanese methods which can be useful to western managers. Here are four of them.

Hoshin Kanri

This is a step-by-step planning, implementation and review process for change. The purpose is to make it possible to break the status quo and make performance improvements by analysing problems and deploying solutions.

Hoshin kanri allows top management’s vision to be translated into a set of coherent and attainable policies that can be understood and achieved at all levels of the company. It operates both at the strategic-planning level and at the daily-management level, at which it addresses more routine aspects of operations.

The Taguchi method

This approach is useful, among other things, for fine-tuning a given process for best results. It is a system for evaluating and implementing improvements in products, processes, materials and facilities. According to the taguchi quality-loss approach, a high-quality process should perform consistently, irrespective of variables in external conditions. Process variables never should deviate from desired values.

There is a standard procedure for implementing taguchi that involves identifying the main function, side effects, noise factors, objective functions and control factors. Then, having conducted a matrix experiment, the data are analysed and a verification experiment is performed.


Jidoka (automation, or automation with a human touch) is often described as “stop and respond to every abnormality.” Jidoka prevents the production of defective products, eliminates overproduction and focuses attention on understanding any problem to ensure that it never occurs again.

Rather than waiting until the end of the process to inspect a product, automation may be employed at early stages of the process to reduce the amount of work that is added to a defective product. It is a complete system of machine and human, to ensure that no defect is passed on to the next process.

Jidoka makes it possible to rapidly or even immediately address, identify and correct mistakes that occur in a process.

The Takt time approach.

This became a cornerstone of the Toyota production system. It is one of the three elements for standardised work, the others being work sequence and standard work in process. Toyota combined a German production concept with flow production, pull system and level production to form the basis of the just-in-time system. At Toyota, the company uses takt time to analyse individual jobs and make small, incremental improvements.

Takt time does not solve problems, but it does expose them, along with any weak points in the production chain.

While these five tools of the Japanese improvement movement were designed for, and mostly have been applied to, manufacturing processes, the authors write, their implementation in the service world could generate new ideas on how to create more competitive service enterprises.

© The New York Times 2014

© 2014 Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa, IESE Universidad de Navarra




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