What Project Managers can learn from Japanese Management Ideas

What Project Managers can Learn from Japanese Management Ideas

Scrum and Kanban are two important project management methodologies. And they both originated in as ideas in Japanese management. But there are lots more valuable ideas in Japanese management. In this article, I want to explore some of them.


Scrum emerged as a new approach to product development from the fertile minds of Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi. It leaned on a sporting metaphor from rugby. But its core ideas soon came to the attention of Agile Project Managers. Now scrum is arguably the single most popular Agile methodology and one of the most searched-for terms in all of Project Management.


Kanban originates from that even more fertile well-spring: the Toyota Production System (TPS). We’ll see lots more ideas that come from there in this article. It started as a manufacturing solution to keeping a process running smoothly, and is now a fully-fledged Project management methodology.

The Toyota Production System (TPS)

As I mentioned above, a lot of the ideas I’ll offer you originate with the Toyota Production System. This owes much to two visionary and practical men:

  1. Eiji Toyoda
  2. Taiichi Ohno

Toyoda was President and Chairman of Toyota, who presided over its breakthrough into the US and European markets. Together with his long-serving engineer, Ohno, he created the Toyota Production System. It’s now more generically known as ‘Lean Production’. For Project Managers, it inspired Lean Project Management.

The PrinciplesPart o the TPS

The TPS started life as a translation of Ford’s 1940’s production manual, but rapidly evolved as Ohno focused his attention on Muda – waste. The core principles, which we’ll learn more about below, are;

  1. Produce components just in time for their use (‘Just in Time’ (JIT) production)
    Ohno wanted to reduce waste, so asked ‘why stockpile components?’. The result was a revolution
  2. Create one continuous process (the ‘Value Stream’)
    To make JIT work, the production process has to be a part of a longer stream of activities from procurement to production to delivery. This is sometimes known as the Value Chain.
  3. Kaizen and Responsibility
    In the TPS, everyone is responsible for quality. Toyota didn’t invent continuous improvement, or Kaizen, but it did make it core to its process.
  4. Build quality in every part of the process (‘Jidoka’)
    And stop the process to allow human intervention when things go wrong, to prevent the waste of producing faulty components.
What Project Managers can Learn from Japanese Management Ideas

Japanese Management Tools for Four Challenges

In this article, I’ll organize my list of Japanese Management Tools into four groups. Each represents a challenge project managers face:

  1. Creating Change
  2. Solving Problems
  3. Communicating Effectively
  4. Crafting Sustainable Solutions

Creating Change: Kaizen, Kaikaku, and Kakushin

Kaizen is one of the best known Japanese management principles. People usually translate it as ‘continuous improvement’, although it literally means ‘change for the better’. However, there are other forms of change, that are more substantial, so let’s look at them all.


Literally, we can translate Kaizen as Kai (Change) Zen (for the Better). So, Kaizen is ‘improvement’ and, most typically, refers to incremental change. It was a starting point for the Toyota Production System, and focuses on the elimination of waste (see Muda, below).

As I said above, people often equate Kaizen with ‘Continuous Improvement’, But this is not a reasonable translation – nor is it how the term was originally used – even if it is now. Kaizen can equally mean discrete or continuous change for the better.

What matters is that Kaizen is a sustainable approach to managing any process, which embodies a continuing search for small, incremental changes to improve efficiency and quality. It is therefore a clear progenitor to the principles of Agile development.

Waste: Muda, Mura, and Muri

It’s worth taking the time to examine the idea of waste, which the TPS strives to eliminate. The principle form of waste is Muda – wasted effort. But there are also two other broad sources of waste to address:

  • Mura
    Inconsistent approaches, uneven workload, inconsistency (see Heijunka, below, as a response to this)
  • Muri
    Unreasonable – even ridiculous – requirements. Overload

Recognition of Muda, Mura, and Muri is part of the Toyota Production System. In fact, in many ways, it was the start of the TPS.

Muda: the Seven Wastes

Muda is an activity that uses resources but creates no value for the customer, client, or end-user.’

It was Taiichi Ohno who first articulated the seven wastes. It’s the resolving of these that is core to any Lean transformation, as well as ongoing Kaizen.

The easiest way people remember the 7 Wastes in English is with the acronym TIMWOOD. So I’ll offer the 7 Wastes in that order:

  • Transporting
  • Inventory (Unnecessary holding – resolved through JIT)
  • Motion (Unnecessary or excess movement of components)
  • Waiting
  • Over-production
  • Over-Processing
  • Defects

There are others that people ave added, of course:

  • Under-utilization of Employees or, sometimes, Unused Creativity
  • Unsafe workplaces and environments
  • Lack of information or poor information sharing
  • Equipment breakdown

For details about these, checkout this article on ‘Muda: The 7 Wastes of Lean‘.


Mottainai means ‘Wasteful’. It represents the sense of regret we feel when we are aware of waste and our failure to use resources well. Aren’t you glad there is a word for this!  It comes from the concept, ‘mottai’ that things have inherent value, or dignity.  That’s nice.

Japanese also use it as an exclamation – the colloquial equivalent of the English expression: ‘What a waste!’ and as a homily, like our injunction to ‘Waste not, want not’. It therefore seems to e to be a particularly valuable concept in this time of over-utilization of our planet’s resources, and the consequent degradation of our environment.


Kaikaku means revolutionary or radical change; reform. The emphasis is on big improvements. It reflects the kind of reformation and transformation of culture and work habits that should lift an organization’s performance to a new level. It is therefore a large-scale and wide-ranging program of work that needs leadership from top management.

Kaizen Blitz

‘Kaizen Blitz’, ‘Kaizen Event’, or ‘Breakthrough Kaizen’ is a rapid change to a specific part of a system or process. It is a concentrated effort to make big changes in a limited context, often focused on a specific short-term goal. Someone who makes a big contribution may be referred to as ‘Zenkai’.

Kaikaku, on the other hand, is a system-wide or process-wide overhaul that seeks ideal processes that will amaze users and customers. Think of it more like ‘re-engineering‘.


If Kaizen makes things better, and Kaikaku makes them radically better, then Kakushin makes them not just better, but different.

Kakushin means innovation. It’s not about improving what you do now, but looking for a completely new way to do it. It often represents disruptive change.

Japanese Management Ideas for Solving Problems

Japanese Management does not just focus on change and improvement. When things go wrong, it offers us some helpful tools for problem-solving, which translate well to a Project Management environment. Let’s take a look at some of them.


We can translate Meikiki as ‘foresight, coupled with good judgment’. It also carries a tone of ability to perceive in a discerning way, so this is a good concept to bring into your monitor and control activities.

However, in Japanese management, they use the term mainly to refer to a strategic vision of the changes we need. So, perhaps it works best in the context of the Project Discovery stage.


It is crucial in Japanese manufacturing, that we can stop the process when things go wrong. So, Andon (which translates into English as ‘Sign’ or ‘Signal’) is a visual aid that highlights where action is needed. It’s often a lamp and the term originates from the Japanese word for a paper lantern.

Andon is part of the Toyota Production System, and is a tool they use in applying the Jidoka principle, that we will see below.

When a team member activates the alert, production automatically stops. This creates the time to look for and implement a solution. Does your project have an Andon?


Genba (or, more commonly in English, ‘Gemba’) means ‘actual place’. It’s where the action occurs and therefore where the problem is. Don’t try to solve project problems from behind a desk: go to the Gemba. Gemba is part of the Toyota Production System.

Wikipedia tells us that the word gemba is used by Japanese police for the scene of a crime. Japanese their on-the-spot journalists report from the gemba.

Genchi Genbutsu 

Genchi Gembutsu translates into English as ‘go and see for yourself’.

The best practice is to go to the place or process where the problem happened. There, you can confirm the facts, analyze root causes, and solve the problem more quickly and efficiently. Genchi Gembutsu is part of the Toyota Production System.


Waigaya is a made-up word, that best translates as hubbub. When you want to solve a problem (at the gemba!), get a team together to discuss it. In a brilliant article about how Honda developed this technique, we learn that a Waigaya has four rules:

  1. Everyone is equal in waigaya. Everybody can express their thoughts openly, without criticism.
  2. The group must debate all ideas until they are either proven valid or rejected.
  3. Once someone shares an idea, it’s not theirs anymore—it belongs to the organization. The group can do with the idea what it wants.
  4. Waigaya ens when the team makes decisions and assigns responsibilities: who will do what, and by when.


In Japanese management, Heijunka means production smoothing or leveling. We have resource leveling in Project Management.

Heijenka is a way to make Just-In-Time (JIT) production work, by finding and keeping average production volumes across all departments and up the value chain to all suppliers. Heijunka is part of the Toyota Production System.

Heijunka is also important for:

  • Sequencing production
    For us, this can mean sequencing project activities to respect logical task dependencies.
  • Ensuring that there is an inventory of product proportional to the variability in demand.
    For us, this means planning resource availability.
  • Making sure components are available in the right quantity and at the right time.
    For us, this is about thinking through the logistics of our projects
List of Japanese Management Ideas that Project Managers can Learn from

Japanese Management Ideas for Communicating Effectively

A common truism, to which I hold, is that:

Project Management is 80 percent communication

So, we should welcome any insights Japanese management can offer us, for how to improve the effectiveness of our project communication.


Ba is a Japanese coinage by Ikujiro Nonaka. It means a meeting place for minds. It also refers to and the energy that draws-forth knowledge and uses it to craft new ideas.

Agile is particularly adept at prioritizing a shared space for the project team, as a way of enhancing working relationships. This space will ideally be a physical one, like an office, dispersed business space. But in Ba, it can also be virtual (email, slack, teleconference), mental (shared experiences, common values, central ideas), or a combination of all of them. Ba is a platform to advance our project knowledge. Lessons learned meetings and problem-solving workshops are great examples.


In project management, we have Stakeholder Engagement. Japanese management has Nemawashi: ‘working to build a consensus’. Nemawashi is part of the Toyota Production System.

Literally, the word translates as ‘going around the roots’.  It refers to the stakeholder alignment and project political process that do the work of creating an effective consensus around requirements. It is therefore a way to deal with and even avert resistance to change. We conduct nemawashi by talking to people, gathering their feedback, and winning support.

Tatemae (and honne)

Tatemae means ‘public truth’.  it represents the things that are appropriate for sharing in public.  Its literal meaning is ‘facade’, so we can think of it as a respectful approach to suppressing inappropriate thoughts and criticisms. We might contrast it with ‘honne’, meaning your true feelings. 


We want to share lessons learned throughout our projects. And Japanese management has the same idea. Yokoten means sharing learning laterally across an organization. Literally: ‘horizontal deployment’.

In Japanese management, Yokoten involves copying and improving on any kaizen ideas that work. For us, one role of a project manager is to make your team aware of useful innovations, so that they can gain the knowledge and apply the ideas for themselves. So, we can see Yokoten as a copy and improve process. The. Simply telling subordinates to copy it may be kaizen of a sort but it would not serve the second important aspect of the Toyota Production System, the respect for and development of people.

Kaze Toushi

A lot of people know that kamikaze means divine wind. Here’s the same word, ‘kaze’. Kaze toushi literally means ‘wind blowing throug‘, or ventilation.

It refers to the ease of communication through an organization. If information does not flow, yokoten does not happen. So, it’s a kind of openness. If behaviors block effective information flow and sharing of success and failure, it stifles innovation.


A more formal form of communication is conjured by the Japanese made-up word, hourensou. It refers to the ‘collaboration and information sharing’ that keeps people informed abut what is going on.

It was created as an acronym of

  • Houkoku – reporting
  • Renraku – informing
  • Soudan – consulting

Japanese Management Ideas for Crafting Sustainable Solutions

We want our projects to create sustainable deliverables and product sets. We also want sustainable improvements to the way we practice our project management. Japanese management offers us a number of valuable ideas here, too.


A number of Japanese companies articulate their culture or vision in terms of Kyosei, meaning ‘the spirit of co-operating for the common good’. This culture of living and working together for a common goal, with a valuable meaning, is something all project managers should aspire to. 


We can translate hansei as ‘self-reflection’. It is our ability to recognise mistakes and take appropriate action to stop them happening again. Its value should go without saying and hansei is part of the Toyota Production System.

This is a process that helps to identify failures and create plans for future efforts. If your team cannot identify issues, it is usually an indication that you did not stretch them, or that you weren’t sufficiently objective in your analysis of their performance. Even if you complete a task successfully, a hansei-kai, or reflection meeting is valuable.


Poka-Yoke is a part of a process that helps you avoid (yokeru) mistakes (poka). Poka-Yoke is part of the Toyota Production System, and you can think of it as ‘making error proof.  Creating something so that it can’t go wrong’. it’s the ideal risk management approach and also a part of some problem solving processes, like the 8 Disciplines.


Th best approach to designing a process – whether a project process or the process you are commissioned to deliver – is building quality in every part of that process. Jidoka is part of the Toyota Production System.

Toyota translates Jidoka as ‘autonomation — automation with human intelligence’. The principle is to designing processes to stop automatically and alert people to problems as soon as they occur. This prevents the waste of producing defective items.

A full application of Jidoka means that the process which created an issue needs to be evaluated to remove the possibility of re-occurrence – Poka Yoke.


This is my favorite Japanese management idea. 5S originated with the work of Hiroyuki Hirano. Toyota rapidly adopted it into their Toyota Production System, and 5S is now an essential part of Lean Manufacturing. 

5S offers five steps to organize your work space. This allows you to work efficiently, effectively, and safely. The approach is about reducing clutter and keeping only the things you need close at hand. Everything has its proper place, and putting things away keeps your work area clean and everything easy to find.

The system takes its name from five Japanese words that start with the ‘s’ sound. All of them can, luckily, translate into English words that also start with an s. There are different translations for some, but in English, we can use:

  • Seiri – Sort, Select
  • Seiton – Systematise, Set in order
  • Seiso – Shine, Sweep
  • Seiketsu – Standardize
  • Shitsuke – Sustain

For more details, take a look at this article, which I wrote elsewhere: ‘5S: Organise Your Workplace’.

What other Japanese Management Ideas can You Suggest?

Are you aware of any other Japanese management ideas that we can learn from, as Project Managers? If you are, please do add them to the comments below, so we can all benefit from your experience.

And, before I go, one last term from Japanese Management…


Literally: ‘death by overwork’.

The major medical causes of karoshi deaths are stress-related heart attack and stroke. Often poor diet and lack of sleep are major contributors. The phenomenon is widespread across many parts of Asia.

The first case was the stroke-related death of a 29-year-old man who worked in the shipping department of a Japanese newspaper company, in 1969. But when more people died from strokes and heart attacks that could be linked to overwork, the term Karoshi was invented in 1978.

Don’t let it happen to you!

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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