Kaizen in Africa: from Japan to Ethiopia

First, let´s give a small definition on what Kaizen is. Kaizen is a Japanese word that means “improvement” and is a method to improve quality and productivity by continually making small efforts that add up to a big result. It consists of several techniques that work together to arrive to a result. These include 5S (sorting, setting in order, shining, standardizing, and sustaining), mudadori (eliminating the seven types of waste: transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over processing 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).

Although Kaizen Philosophy is more likely to be found in mass-production factories rather than in small workplaces, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Ethiopia Sub-Saharan Africa began to adopt this approach in the early 2009 for Africa to walk the same path japan walked and helped them recover from the ruins of defeat in World War Two. 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 organized the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD V) in Yokohama. The main focal points of the conference, to be attended by African heads of state and development officials, were sustainable economy, an inclusive and resilient society, and peace and stability. Kaizen was also mentioned as part of the discussion and the Kaizen Experience in Africa began.

JICA’s first kaizen project in Sub-Saharan Africa began in 2009, where a kaizen unit was created in Ethiopia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade for the Sub-Saharan Africa countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania and countries that participated in training through Japan or a third country included Uganda, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho. In Ethiopia the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was so impressed that he adopted the Kaizen approach as a national strategy. In his own words “What we hope to achieve through the introduction of the kaizen system is improvement in the productivity of all our enterprises, public and private. It’s based on the creativity of all employees; it involves all employees in the improvement of quality and productivity of a company.”

Kaizen_Logo_david kiger
Image courtesy of kiran Valipa Venkat at Flickr.com

 The Kaizen experience in Ethiopia consisted of two phases: The first part was from October 2009 to June 2011 and it involved creating a national plan, using Kaizen pilots in 30 companies, and training staff to understand and apply the kaizen Approach. After all this ended, the construction in Addis Ababa of the Ethiopian Kaizen Institute (EKI) started. This was the first public institution in the world to include “kaizen” in its name. The second part that went from November 2011 to October 2014, was focused on spreading kaizen to more enterprises throughout all of Ethiopia, including small companies and micro enterprises, and to build capacity at EKI.

The idea of taking kaizen to Ethiopia worked more or less like this, as explained by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in their webpage: “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”. The Kaizen Philosophy can be found in industry sectors in Africa such as manufacturing (food and agricultural product processing, metalworking, textiles and leather), the service sector and the public sector. In Zambia, kaizen spread from industry to government, hospitals and educational, and it was even considered for soccer in Ethiopia.

For Africans the Kaizen approach is one that they can relate to because Africans have a mindset of being used to a top-down corporate style. So quality control circles and other bottom-up aspects of kaizen are very trendy and liberating for them. Africans also tend to respond well to the fact that Toyota helped pioneer kaizen but need examples of smaller companies so they can understand how they can apply this to their everyday lives in their work place.

A good example of Kaizen in Zambia was a municipal office in Zambia that was having trouble collecting taxes. The office sought help by the JICA and they applied kaizen methods including a fishbone chart and a quality control circle to find where the problem was. By applying the Kaizen philosophy they found out that workers had to actually go out and collect the taxes and create strategies to convince or force people to pay their obligations. Another problem was that the receptionist at the office where the fees were paid was unfriendly and the office was dark. By making visible the problem, a simple smile and a friendlier atmosphere brought in more tax payers than ever.


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