Interview with Masaaki Imai

By John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog (since 2004).

Masaaki Imai is a consultant, author and founder of the Kaizen Institute. The second edition of his book, Gemba Kaizen, was published this year. He agreed to an interview with The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog.

Question: Did you work with Dr. Deming?

Answer: I never had the privileges of meeting Dr. Deming. I can say that Dr. Deming’ teachings were great revelations to Japanese management which built many Kaizen practices in Japan based on his principles.

Question: Dr. Deming saw mobility of top management as a disease of western management. The turnover creates a focus on short term results while deemphasizing long term thinking and often results in executives that have little experience with the organization they are suppose to help lead.

Answer: To assure the prosperity of a firm should be a long-term strategy and the turnover of key managers should be taken into account from the stand point of long-term consideration and not from the monthly or quarterly flavors.

Question: What do you see as the proper role of control charts today? Lean efforts seem to give less attention to control charts than Dr. Deming did.

Answer: Control charts are one of the statistical tools for solving quality related problems. Under the lean system, any tools which are required for solving problems are used. However, there are various non-statistical tools that have been typically developed by lean companies, notably by Toyota for minimizing variability in production, such as standardization, introduction of takt time, synchronization, shortening the total production lead time which I am fond of referring to as non statistical tools.

Question: Some people are worried that standardization means they will be stripped on the ability to innovate use their creativity. This isn’t the case, but some still worry about it. Do you have a suggestion for how to address these concerns when introducing the concept of standardization in an organization?

Answer: The standard is not writ on the stone. The definition of the standard is that it is the best way to do the job for now. It should be regarded as a next step to make further improvement.

Question: I find the huge pay taken by senior executives at many USA and some European companies so excessive that they are inherently disrespectful to the others in the organization (and disrespectful to the owners of the organization). Do you have an opinion on the current level of senior executive pay?

Answer: I have a theory that among the large Western companies (mostly American) the higher an executive is promoted, the more wisdom is lost and by the time he or she reaches the top becomes a complete idiot. Certainly they do not deserve the outrageous salary.

Question: What do you see as important areas for managers to focus on today? Are there specific management practices that you find being applied less well across many organizations?

Answer: I believe that management should focus on two particular areas. One is Gemba(shop floor) and the other is customer (not the shareholder).

Question: In Gemba Kaizen you encourage the use of targets, in one example reducing the setup time for a machine from 6 hours to 30 minutes over 6 months. You explain that workers must be given the proper training to achieve the targets.
How do you suggest protecting against risks targets bring? Certainly we don’t want to be so focused on meeting a target that when, using the previous example, the setup time is reduced to 1 hour but efforts to reduce the time further are continually unsuccessful. If the target is given too high a priority we may lead people to sacrifice something else to reach the target, perhaps sacrifice safety to speed things up, or perhaps a change that lets us reduce setup time but results in worse results as the machine is being used.

Answer: These are the types of questions raised by those who have never been in a position to realize these targets.

Question: What is your opinion on the state of management practice for service organizations versus manufacturing organizations? Do you think service organizations, by and large, are behind manufacturing organization in adopting the management ideas of Dr. Deming and those you discuss in Gemba Kaizen?

Answer: I am beginning to see a large-scale introduction of various management tools, philosophies and practices in the service sectors and have a high hope that it will become a global trend.

Related: Video of Dr. W. Edwards Deming: Deadly Diseases of Western ManagementAppreciation for a System

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