Thursday, March 18, 2010

I know, I promised no more posts on Toyota,

And after Balloon Boy II (Prius Boy?) exposed the hoaxes that have come in the wake of whatever set off this latest round of Jap-bashing, I assume we can go on to more important issues than whatever infinitesimal level of imperfections Toyota has failed to eliminate in their quest for zero-defect production.  I mean, even if every one of the accusations against Toyota were true, and it is clear they are not, they would still involve less than 1/100th of 1% of the vehicles they have sold over the years.

New Rule: Only people who have achieved 99.999% perfection in their lives are allowed to criticize Toyota.

To understand how utterly insane this has become, however, we must only look at some of the blogs that have made Toyota-bashing an issue.  On one (which will remain nameless because I happen to like the blogger) we even see Toyota condemned because of their use of Kaizen.

Now I happen to think Kaizen is one of the great ideas of human history. Read the linked entry above and judge for yourself.  The reasons I think this is a great idea are many but two stand out.

1) Kaizen democratized build quality.  Before Toyota refined Kaizen into their manufacturing philosophy, excellence was usually associated with very expensive cars like Rolls or Mercedes.  When Toyota got their version of Kaizen rolling, the humble Corolla made the most expensive Mercedes look like junk when it came to manufacturing excellence.  It was amazing.  It was also no small matter.  In a country where transportation has been almost totally privatized, the economics of owning a car become almost inescapable.  And car failures can be economically catastrophic for a LOT of people.  So building reliable vehicles makes MANY lives a LOT better.  Especially when those cars are also the most inexpensive ones a company makes.

2) Kaizen is also important because without this sort of thinking, there can be NO green technologies.  Kaizen can actually address a question like, "Is it possible to have zero-waste production?"  Because of Kaizen, Japan is one of the world leaders in green technologies.  My brother loves his Sanyo solar panels.

What is really sad about something like Kaizen-bashing is that it demonstrates why xenophobia is a real problem.  At one point in USA's history--as recently as 1962, it's citizens really were able to thump their chests and crow, "We're #1!"  But a LOT has gone wrong since then.  In category after category, the USA is now more like 37 (health care.)  And the xenophobia that is embedding in the "We're #1" chants is a significant factor in that decline.  How?

For example, the folks in Singapore have clearly figured out how to teach their children math.  In USA, the overwhelming majority of children do not learn math.  The obvious solution would be to start using Singapore's methods and math textbooks--at least on an experimental scale.  But to do that, we would have to admit that someone else does something better than we do.  So long as "We're #1" is the real religion of the land, this cannot be allowed to happen.  So instead we conduct more seminars, hold more conferences, rewrite more textbooks, and fund more studies into the "eternal" question of why our children cannot learn math.

Unfortunately, if we cannot even learn from others on so simple a matter as math instruction, imagine the problems with something as complex as Kaizen.  Of course, because Kaizen offered a road to higher profits, there was some interest here in USA and there are stories of small manufacturers who actually figured out how to make it work for them.  But for most in USA, Kaizen was at best a blip on their radar and most attempts at trying it out were about as half-hearted as our attempt to convert to the metric system.

I understand there is a real criticism of Kaizen--that behind all the talk of environmental and build-quality excellence, it is just another way of squeezing too much work out of the poor souls on the assembly line. Yet even with the valid issues of worker exploitation, Kaizen's reputation does not suffer.  And why is this true?  Because Kaizen is a tool.  How it is used it up to the culture.  Kaizen could also be used to increase the leisure time of the factory worker.  In theory, there could be an Amish application of Kaizen.  (There are probably some in fact--I just don't know about them.)

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