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Apr 14th 2009 From Economist.com

Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning, roughly, continuous improvement. t is one o! a "atch o! oriental ideas sei#ed upon "y western companies in the 19$0s when it was thought that Japan was the source o! most wisdom a"out management. %&hen applied to the wor'place,( says )asaa'i mai, an author whose 19$* "oo' on kaizen spar'ed much o! the western interest, %kaizen means continuous improvement involving everyone, managers and wor'ers ali'e.( mai su"se+uently "ecame chairman o! the ,ai#en nstitute, a networ' o! consultants around the world dedicated to helping clients to %sustain continual improvement in all aspects o! their enterprises(. Kaizen has also "een translated as %re!inement(, the process "y which a rough diamond gradually gets smoothed into a high-+uality gemstone. n Japanese culture, the idea o! re!inement has a particular signi!icance. t is not, !or e.ample, considered to "e copying to ta'e someone else/s idea and then to re!ine it !or yoursel!. t is considered more li'e a cele"ration o! your environment. 0i'e several other Japanese "usiness concepts o! the time, kaizen "egins with the letter ,1 li'e keiretsu, kanban and kakushin. Kaizen has three underlying principles2 3 that human resources are a company/s most important asset4 3 that processes must evolve "y gradual improvement rather than "y radical change4 3 that improvement must "e "ased on a +uantitative evaluation o! the per!ormance o! di!!erent processes. Kaizen lost some o! its shine with the slowdown o! the Japanese industrial "ulldo#er. Even 5oyota, one o! its most devoted e.ponents, came to ac'nowledge that kaizen had to "e mi.ed with more radical re!orms. n an interview in 2006, the company/s "oss, ,atsua'i &atana"e, said2 Fi!teen years ago would have said that as long as we had enough people 5oyota could achieve its goals through 'ai#en. n today/s world, however, change 7 may also need to "e "rought a"out "y 'a'ushin. 8owever, &atana"e also ac'nowledged that %when 60 years o! very small improvements accumulate, they "ecome a revolution(. n!luential in the decline o! the idea was the new-!ound emphasis on the speed o! change and on the need !or !irms to %morph( in dou"le-+uic' time to sei#e the opportunities presented "y e-commerce and other developments in in!ormation technology. t was hard to !it the steady deli"eration o! kaizen into such an environment. Kaizen/s gradualism no longer seemed to suit the mood o! the times.

Further reading
mai, )., %,ai#en2 the ,ey to Japan/s 9ompetitive :uccess(, ;andom 8ouse, 19$$

mai, )., %<em"a ,ai#en2 A 9ommonsense 0ow-9ost Approach to )anagement(, )c<raw8ill, 1996 0ewis, ,.9., %,ai#en2 5he ;ight Approach to 9ontinuous mprovement(, F: nternational, 199=