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Kaizen vs. innovation

The Western world pursues the concept of innovation as a means of driving progress – major changes are intended to generate major growth. Unfortunately, in reality, it doesn’t always work like that.

In his book, Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success, Masaaki Imai explains the situation as follows.

As soon as an innovation has been established it begins to degenerate. Continuous efforts are essential just to maintain the status quo and small-scale changes need to be made continuously, which is precisely the principle of Kaizen – making small changes on a continuous basis.

Imai also argues that the situation is compounded by the West’s overriding reliance on key financial figures as reference values. In order to achieve such targets, virtually all activities need to be measured by their return on investment (ROI). This inhibits a culture of continuous improvement, where every employee consciously contributes to a corporate culture that is permanently seeking to improve everything.

A comparison of innovation and Kaizen by Masaaki Imai (1993):

Effect Long term and lasting, undramatic Short term, dramatic
Pace Small steps Large steps
Timeframe Continuous and incremental Intermittent and time-limited
Chance of success Consistently high Intermittent and time-limited
Protagonists Every employee in the company A chosen few
Approach Collective spirit, group work, systematic Individual ideas and efforts
Precept Sustain and improve Break off and rebuild
Recipe for success Conventional know-how and the latest state-of-the-art technology Technological achievements, new inventions, new theories
Practical requirements Minor investment, major effort to sustain Major investment, minor effort to sustain
Focal point for success People Technology
Evaluation criteria Performance and processes for improved results Financial profit
Advantage Exceptionally suitable for a slow-growing economy Primarily suitable for a fast-growing economy
White Paper Lean Production
White Paper Lean Production