Zen and kaizen

Japanese practices promoted and popularised process improvement. The quality movement brought the concept of continuous improvement (kaizen), to which the business guru Tom Peters added customer focus. In their seminal work In Search of Excellence (1982), Peters & Waterman compared the products of the American motor industry with that of the Japanese. They concluded that 'lack of care and attention is a detrimental aspect of the finish given by so many companies to the work they undertake'.

What, exactly, is the nature of Japan's magic?

'They excel in the quality of fits and finishes, moldings that match, doors that don't sag, materials that look good and wear well, flawless paint jobs. Most important of all, Japanese cars have earned a reputation for reliability, borne out by the generally lower warranty claims they experience. Technically, most Japanese cars are fairly ordinary.' (Burck, 1980, quoted in Peters & Waterman, 1982)

Peters & Waterman quote from Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974): 'While at work I was thinking about this lack of care in the ... manuals I was editing . . . they were full of errors, ambiguities, omissions and information so completely screwed up [that] you had to read them six times to make any sense out of them'. They also quote Professor William Abernathy (Gall, 1981): 'The Japanese seem to have a tremendous cost advantage . . . The big surprise to me was to find out that it's not automation . . . They have developed a ''people'' approach'. This was further exemplified by an observation from Kenichi Ohmae (1981), head of McKinsey's Tokyo office, that 'in Japan organisation and people are synonymous'.

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