American Kaizen Process Improvement

WW2 Woman munition workers on assembly line

If you research process improvement methods you will come across Kaizen. Sounds like a Japanese word and it is. But it was the US that developed the ideas that underpin Kaizen. During the Second World War, in order to make the most of limited national resources, the US created the Training Within Industry (TWI) group. Essentially a consulting group of manufacturing experts, TWI developed and trained large numbers of engineers and supervisors in industry best practice to improve manufacturing output.

Roots of Kaizen are in Training Within Industry (TWI)

After the war, the Japanese struggled to restore the competitiveness of their shattered manufacturing base. In the early fifties, the American government, still an occupying force, made efforts to transfer manufacturing know-how to Japan, most famously introducing W. Edwards Deming to train Japanese engineers in statistical methods of process control. Less well known but arguably of similar impact was the introduction of TWI.

The Japanese were quick to see the benefits and to adopt TWI. They developed the concepts further and gave it a Japanese cultural twist. They called it Kaizen, or literally, “Good Change”. One tiny step at a time, the Japanese quietly pulled themselves into contention as a manufacturing nation. Then they pulled ahead. Kaizen and other quality improvement techniques were responsible for the resurgence and, briefly, global dominance of Japanese manufacturing.

In the US after WW2, the Truman administration no longer had an interest in promoting manufacturing best practice. Funding for the TWI initiative ceased. Various private consulting companies continued to offer it in various forms. But gradually, it fell out of favor and dwindled to nothing in the sixties.

Why did TWI/Kaizen disappear in the US?

Why did Kaizen not take root in the US where it began? Some people say that Japanese culture is peculiarly suited to the kind of group consensus making that makes it successful. American society with its emphasis on individualism and competition over consensus is antithetical to the cultural basis of Kaizen process improvement. However, while that might be true of the Japanese version, it does not explain why it was so successful in the US during the war.

Perhaps it has more to do with lack of necessity. Throughout the fifties and sixties and up until the energy crisis in the seventies, US industry was the pre-eminent manufacturing economy. This was the golden age of the Big Three in the auto industry, of Westinghouse and General Foods. Europe took decades to develop the industrial strength to take on the US. With the exception of Japan, Asia was even slower. And the US had the additional advantages of a flourishing technology sector and efficient capital markets to exploit it.

Kaizen process improvement was re-imported back to the US beginning in the late eighties as companies woke up to the fact that Japan and other nations were overtaking the US in manufacturing quality. Today it is found not only in manufacturing, but also in the service industries that make up so much of the US economy.

However, it has never caught on as widely as it did in Japan. Nor is it practiced with the same discipline. One reason for that is the Americans focus on results rather than the process that achieves them. But that is another subject for another article.

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