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Japanese production after 1945

The beginnings

After the Second World War, Japan didn’t get as much financial aid from the USA as Germany did, and the country had to find its own way to compete on the global market. The aim was to produce products in ever higher quantities and to an ever higher quality standard while continuously reducing waste. Toyota was very quick to start looking into how exactly it could achieve this aim.

In 1950, the large car manufacturer began gradually rolling out a new production system developed by two engineers, Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo. It was known as TPS – the Toyota Production System – and it was an unrivalled success. Today, Toyota is one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers and the third-largest company listed on the stock exchange.

Japan overtakes the West

In 1990, a book called "The Machine that Changed the World: the Story of Lean Production" was published as a response to the global astonishment felt at Japan’s new-found success. Large sections of production had succeeded in doubling quantity and quality and halving material consumption in a short space of time. Compared to their Western counterparts, production operations in Japan were often more than 50 percent leaner. What was going on?

Basically, the two engineers from Toyota had formulated the Kaizen philosophy a good 40 years earlier, an approach similar to the continuous improvement process of the West. Kaizen describes the struggle for perfection, which can never really be achieved in its entirety, but is still the overriding objective. Everything – every plant, product, process and sequence – always offers room for improvement. Western companies traditionally focus on large leaps in innovation, which are expensive and require a certain amount of instability in processes. Japanese companies develop ongoing, low-cost improvements that are far-reaching and not dictated from above but rather implemented through collaboration between employees. Using Kaizen as a basis, Toyota developed a number of strategies, including just-in-time production with the Kanban system.

The West can do Kaizen, too

Kaikaku can transform a Western plant into a Kaizen company. The term describes a radical change within a certain timeframe.  Kaikaku is the process of restructuring production and support areas for continuous flow production, anchoring the lean philosophy among personnel and providing training that builds up a lean culture, which creates a "new company" through consistent management, decisions and conduct at all levels. That is what propelled Japanese production to the forefront of global development.

It is worthwhile noting that cultural factors are of little importance to the successful application of these methods – many of the Japanese management techniques are successful because they are simple and effective. However, when seeking to better understand these systems, it is useful to look into certain aspects of the Japanese mindset.

  1. The group comes ahead of the individual
  2. Everything is taken into account as part of a holistic approach
  3. The main focal point is the solution, not the problem
  4. There is acceptance for ideas from the workforce
  5. There is always room for improvement

  6. The three key "Mu-s" need to be eliminated:
    1. Muda – waste is eliminated, unnecessary activities avoided
    2. Mura – unevenness is eliminated, a balanced workflow generated
    3. Muri – excess strain is eliminated, sources of error eradicated

  7. Rolling out simple monitoring systems
  8. Introducing Poka Yoke, keeping systems simple enough that there are as few error sources as possible
  9. Order and cleanliness boost morale and the quality of work
  10. Thorough investigation – every cause is scrutinised until its true essence is uncovered
  11. Company management regularly visit the plant floor to see what is happening

These principles acted as the breeding ground for the successful Japanese production principles. They also continue to help companies apply these strategies effectively.

Companies often fail to understand that the broad diversity of methods and processes in lean production form a single intermeshed entity – isolated applications do not yield optimum results. In addition to the disciplined application of strategies and methods, genuine success can also be helped a great deal by a company philosophy that has been carefully nurtured over the decades and an openness to new, independent ideas.

Franz J. Brunner – Japanische Erfolgskonzepte (Japanese Success Concepts), Munich 2011

White Paper Lean Production
White Paper Lean Production