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The Japanese workplace philosophy of Kaizen is sweeping all before it in factories and workshops in Ethiopia. The philosophy, developed by Japan after World War II to make the most of meagre resources through efficiency, seems to be a perfect fit for Ethiopia’s industrial needs. James Jeffrey made the rounds of businesses in Addis Ababa to find out how the idea works and with what results.
Inside a dimly lit shed, a projector displayed a PowerPoint presentation onto a hastily rigged sheet of wood. Although the text was in Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia, the ideas behind the bullet points are summed up by one Japanese word: Kaizen. A small group of Ethiopian furniture makers sat and listened intently to the instructor from the Ethiopian Kaizen Institute (EKI), while in the back row a woman scribbled into a notepad.
Kaizen is a Japanese management philosophy that allows companies to continuously improve their productivity and product quality with available resources and without depending on new investment – and it is taking root in Ethiopian business culture.
The Addis Ababa-based EKI was established through a partnership between the Ethiopian government and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a Japanese governmental agency focused on development through technical cooperation.
JICA has already introduced Kaizen to other African countries although its Japanese staff think Ethiopia can become a Kaizen hub due to its business situation being such a good fit for Kaizen ideas and methodologies. Ethiopian end users seem to be reacting positively to this Japanese business ethic that can trace its lineage back to the birth of Zen Buddhism.
“The workers are involved and can see the changes,” said Dawit Birasa, manager of plans and programmes at Peacock Shoe Factory, an Ethiopian company based in an Addis Ababa industrial zone and which last year embraced Kaizen. “It’s understandable and not complicated, which is a big advantage.”
Between 15th January 2013 and 22nd May 2013, a team of Kaizen consultants from EKI visited the factory 17 times to instruct workers and management on Kaizen and how it can be used to identify bottlenecks in manufacturing processes, develop action plans, provide solutions and evaluate results to instigate further improvements. By the end of May, production of quality men’s and ladies shoes had increased from 500 pairs every eight hours to 800 pairs, many of which are exported across much of Europe.
JICA’s Kaizen programme started in November 2011 and will run until October 2014. In addition to production improvements, reductions to costs and elimination of waste have amounted to savings totalling tens of thousands of dollars for companies involved in JICA’s programme.
Less tangible benefits include attitudes changed for the better, more mutually beneficial relationships between workers and managers, and improved team work and motivation levels starting at the lowest level of workers and continuing upward through a company’s hierarchies. Kaizen emphasises a bottom-up approach.
By the end of its programme, JICA aims to have trained 65 EKI consultants working with 65 large and medium enterprises, and 190 Kaizen train-the-trainers working with 190 micro and small enterprises.
Even if those figures are not met, the establishment of the EKI means that numbers trained by the institute in the future will far exceed JICA’s contribution. Those at JICA wouldn’t have it any other way. “By starting their own training initiatives there will be many more beneficiaries,” said Yuko Ikeda, JICA’s project formulation advisor for private sector development. JICA specialises in capacity building and enabling organisations achieve self-sufficiency – hence JICA programmes always have an end date.
The PowerPoint presentation to the workers at Mesker Metal & Wood PLC was only the third visit to the company by an EKI team. The ramshackle layout inside the compound indicated there was much potential for the sort of business streamlining promulgated by Kaizen. Before the presentation started, the two workers I spoke to didn’t yet seem to understand much about Kaizen, although one of them said he hoped to see workspace improvements.
“The main problem is in the workshop where materials are not accessible and it’s hard to get the right measurements,” said Selamu Bereka, clad in dusty blue overalls. “When we finish, the [cupboards] are not as good as they could be.”