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Japan’s Kaizen philosophy offers lessons in time management

By | October 27th 2009

By Anderea Morara

You may have heard of Kaizen — the Japanese term for continuous improvement. Among the greatest constraints to productivity improvement in Africa, is poor time management.

You may be tempted to accuse me of stereotype talk — but studies in the 21st century show that it is in Africa where you find more people conducting business, as if time can wait for them than anywhere else on earth.

This is a serious indictment of our quest for economic development and escape from the classical "poverty equilibrium" that the continent is often cast.

If you are a production manager, or CEO, you cannot avoid being concerned with inputs and outputs, especially the output/input ratios, for therein profits and success of the company lie.

In essence, every business has an input and an output even if it only deals in ideas or trades in finished goods.

Hence, if there is one thing your "production" team needs to focus on, it is output per unit time. In the kaizen language, you should focus on the reduction of total build cycle time.

In this part of the world, there is no other area that greater leaps in productivity improvement can be made than in better cycle time management.

The amount of time it takes for any process to be completed or for the product to go through all the steps until it is handed over to the customer, has cost implications — and in virtually all cases, the more the time it takes, the more it costs you and the less the profit for your enterprise. The adage that time is money (lost in this case) stands unchallenged in this scenario.

Saving culture

Long cycle times are a symptom of poor performance and high non-value adding costs. Efforts must be made to shorten process times, even by small amounts on a continuous basis.

A culture of time saving must be instituted in all production processes and staff must be encouraged to suggest ways of getting the product to the customer’s hands sooner.

Cycle times can be shortened through varying factor combinations — for example, changing the number of worker mixtures in terms of skills, sex or age or the number of shifts.

Through use of a work shift system, the number of days can, for example, be increased from five to seven days a week and this could have substantial implications on throughput.

Changing the methodology, or the basic design of a tool, could lead to significant changes in productivity.

For example, in Kenya the productivity of many small-scale farmers could be raised through small changes in the design of the jembe/hoe.

For instance, through slightly changing the length, the thickness or the curvature of the jembe handle, diggers could take less time to clear a portion of ground.

Alternatively, by changing the shape or size of the jembe, significant efficiency gains and consequent time saving could be achieved on the farms.

In the office environment, it has been found that in some work situations, productivity could be raised by as high as 50 per cent by converting from desktop to laptop computers.

In big organisations, distances could be "enormous" as departments focus on their own needs, while reports replace face-to-face conversations in conventional small organisations.

Ultimately, companies tend to become a maze of conflicting interest groups whose own demands and disagreements end up frustrating the very customers they have been created to serve. To remain a fast-cycle organisation you must recognise the need for heightening everyone’s awareness of how and where time is spent.

You must seek to make the flow of operations from start to finish visible and comprehensible to all employees.

Small changes

To maintain fast-cycle status, an organisation must structure its work and measure performance in a way that encourages continuous improvement and organisational learning.

Successful fast-cycle organisations argue everyone learns about customers, competitors and key internal operations — as these are critical to be left to the top management alone.

Before worrying about big things such as new technology, innovation or organisational restructuring, focus on small changes (kaizen).

By each individual effort, the cumulative impact could see your performance (and profit) soar through the roof.

The focus should be on process improvement and tool enhancement with the ultimate objective being realisation of product/material change in line with customer requirements.

—The writer ([email protected]) is the Executive Director of Capacity Development Africa Ltd.

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