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
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.
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:
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 TPS started life as a translation of Ford’s 1940’s production
In this article, I’ll organize my list of Japanese Management Tools into four groups. Each represents a challenge project managers face:
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
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:
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 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
There are others that people ave added, of course:
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
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
‘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 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 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
Andon is part of the Toyota Production
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. Ja
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.
In Japanese management, Heijunka means production smoothing or leveling. We have resource leveling in Project Management.
Heijunka is also important for:
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
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.
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
A lot of people know that kamikaze means divine wind. Here’s the same word, ‘kaze’. Kaze
It refers to the ease of communication through an organization. If information does not flow,
A more formal form of communication is conjured by the Japanese made-up word,
It was created as an acronym of
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
We can translate
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 (
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.
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:
For more details, take a look at this article, which I wrote elsewhere: ‘5S: Organise Your Workplace’.
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.
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!
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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