May 29, 2013

Africa: With JICA’s Help, ‘Kaizen’ Is Being Widely Adopted in Africa

Kaizen, a method of bottom-up continuous improvement in productivity and quality developed by Japanese industry and made famous by Toyota, has spread worldwide. When you hear about Walmart’s just-in-time supply chain, for example, that’s kaizen.

The latest hotbed for kaizen, however, is a region where you’re more likely to find small workplaces than mass-production factories. Led by Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa is wholeheartedly embracing kaizen with the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

The Government of Japan, the African Union Commission (AUC), the United Nations Office of the Special Advisor on Africa (UN-OSAA), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank will co-organize the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD V) in Yokohama June 1-3. The main focal points of the conference, to be attended by African heads of state and development officials, will be a robust and sustainable economy, an inclusive and resilient society, and peace and stability. But kaizen also is likely to be part of the discussion.

A series of Africa kaizen events, including a “Seminar on KAIZEN (Quality and Productivity Improvement) in Africa: towards Industrial Development” and an “Exhibition on Kaizen (Quality and Productivity Improvement) in Africa,” was held in March in Addis Ababa. At these official side events of the Ministerial Preparatory Meeting for TICAD V, there were calls for African countries engaging in kaizen to create networks to further their efforts. This is a topic that is likely to come up again at TICAD V.

What is kaizen?

photoThe kaizen philosophy is promulgated at one of the pilot companies.

Kaizen is a Japanese word that, in its most general sense, means “improvement.” As used internationally, kaizen is a method to improve quality and productivity by continually making small efforts that add up to a big result. It is a general term that encompasses several techniques. These include 5S (sorting, setting in order, shining, standardizing, and sustaining), mudadori (eliminating the seven types of waste: transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, overprocessing and defects), quality control circles (groups of workers who regularly brainstorm on productivity and quality, bringing improvement from the bottom up), the seven quality control tools, statistical analysis and Total Quality Management (TQM).

Kaizen developed out of ideas brought to Japan after World War II by statistician and business consultant William Edwards Deming. In 1950, Deming was involved in planning the Japanese national census. He then taught statistical quality control techniques to Japanese economists and engineers. Companies that adopted his techniques reviewed their processes and reduced quality variance, resulting in improved productivity. In the 1960s and '70s, these companies continued improving their production processes, giving rise to the uniquely Japanese ideas of the 5S and Total Quality Control (TQC). By the '80s, Japanese industry had widely adopted kaizen. That’s when leading industrial nations led by the United States took notice of TQC and the Toyota Way and began adopting them. In this way, kaizen became internationally famous and a major Japanese "brand."

Toru Homma, a JICA senior advisor for private sector development, has been a leading figure in JICA's kaizen programs. He helped organize the Africa kaizen events in Addis Ababa in March. He says the first JICA kaizen project began in Singapore in 1983. After Singapore, kaizen projects spread to eastern Europe as part of efforts to convert to a market economy after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to Latin America, and then to North Africa.

Kaizen in Sub-Saharan Africa

JICA’s first kaizen project in Sub-Saharan Africa began in 2009 in Ethiopia at the request of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Asres, a kaizen enthusiast. Following Meles’ request, a kaizen unit was created in Ethiopia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade.

JICA’s kaizen activities in Ethiopia have been carried out in two phases. The first, from October 2009 to June 2011, involved creating a national plan, carrying out kaizen in 30 pilot companies, and personnel training in the kaizen unit. This culminated with the construction in Addis Ababa of the Ethiopian Kaizen Institute (EKI), the first public institution in the world to include “kaizen” in its name. (Preparations to create another institute with “kaizen” in its name are underway in Zambia.)

The second phase, from November 2011 to October 2014, is an effort to spread kaizen to more enterprises throughout all of Ethiopia, including small companies and micro enterprises, and to build capacity at EKI.

JICA aims to make kaizen programs self-sustaining. JICA's basic approach to kaizen cooperation can be understood by looking at the example of Ethiopia: There is an organization in charge of kaizen dissemination (the Ethiopia Kaizen Institute). It receives instructions from the government on policy, and JICA provides support. That support includes master plan making, dispatch of experts, training programs and pilot consultation for companies. The organization then disseminates kaizen and provides services to target companies and sectors.

JICA kaizen projects are underway in the Sub-Saharan Africa countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania. Countries participating in training through Japan or a third country include Uganda, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho. In Africa, target sectors for kaizen include manufacturing (such as food and agricultural product processing, metalworking, textiles and leather), the service sector and the public sector. Targets range from micro industries to large companies.

In Zambia, kaizen has spread from industry to government, hospitals and educational institutions. Homma says he has even heard it is being considered for soccer in Ethiopia.

Explaining kaizen to Africans

photoRolled steel was in disarray before kaizen was applied at this factory.
photoUsing three of the 5S (sorting, setting in order and shining), the storage system was greatly improved.

“A lot of Africans get excited about ‘philosophy,’” Homma says. “The late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles was that way too. He is the one who took the initiative to bring kaizen to Ethiopia, and he said definitively that kaizen is a philosophy, and also a mindset. And an insight.”

Homma said a reason Africans can relate to kaizen as a mindset is they are accustomed to a top-down corporate style. So quality control circles and other bottom-up aspects of kaizen tend to strike them as liberating.

Africans also tend to respond well to the fact that Toyota helped pioneer kaizen, he adds. But the Toyota example can be daunting, so it’s also important to explain that small companies in Japan use the method as well.

Homma says he always starts out by emphasizing that kaizen has to be continuously implemented.

Kaizen is not about trying to bring about innovation overnight," says Homma. "The important thing is to make small but steady improvements over time. You need the right sort of framework so that improvements can take place spontaneously from the bottom up. Officials and business leaders have been very responsive to the idea that kaizen can be an effective tool in turning workers' and managers' mindsets around. "

A good entry point in Africa is 5S because it quickly produces visible results.

“It can even be three S’s,” Homma said. “'This area is now cleaned up, so we can install another line here. Productivity is up 30 percent.' Even just one S is OK for starters. 'First, let’s get rid of things we don’t need. If they can be sold, you gain some cash.' It’s very easy to understand. ‘Look, results!’ It’s not a fundamental part of kaizen, but it is a good entry point.”

In Ethiopia’s Phase One, the pilot companies averaged a $30,000 initial gain, or $75 per person, by doing kaizen.


A simple example of kaizen implementation in Africa is a municipal office in Zambia that was having trouble collecting taxes. JICA helped it use kaizen methods including a fishbone chart and a quality control circle to get to the root of the problem. For one thing, workers found that taxes would not collect themselves. They had to actually get out and collect them. Another problem was that the receptionist at the office where the fees are paid was unfriendly and the office was dark. Simply smiling and turning on the lights led to a substantial increase in people coming in to pay.

In Ethiopia, 5S was used to improve the flow of people in workplaces, to put assembly lines in order and balance them, to improve workplace layouts and to reclaim space. There are also cases of reduced defects. A milling company cut flour waste by 50 percent. A shoe factory found the most efficient way to cut leather. JICA President Akihiko Tanaka toured the factory in April and saw firsthand the results of kaizen there.

What’s next

Asked what is next for Kaizen in Africa, Homma says that in the case of Ethiopia, JICA’s work has already borne a lot of fruit. Companies, such as in the sugar industry, are proactively implementing kaizen. Results are becoming visible in industry. Companies are now evaluating the impact, and the results should show up in the bottom line before long. As kaizen achieves its goal of increased quality, companies should see their market shares expand. As productivity expands, factories should be able to make more things. In this way, industry is activated, and improvements like these spread from the company level to the industry level.”

There is much more to be done in Africa, however, Homma says.

“I am glad kaizen has become such a catchy idea. But if kaizen becomes an end unto itself, that can result in mistakes. The goal is not to implement kaizen. The important thing is what you do with kaizen. The next topic will be creating networks. I’d like to see the countries of Africa take the initiative to share information and spread kaizen on their own. Of course, JICA will be ready to offer its support.”

Given the talk of network building at the Africa kaizen events in Addis Ababa in March, it will likely be part of the discussion at TICAD V.


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