Africa Needs to Do Innovation or KAIZEN?

Photograph: World Bank
Photograph: World Bank

Innovation is a hot topic in the development community. Practitioners, researchers and business people love to talk about innovation that changes ‘the game’. It sounds exciting. But do we all really need innovation for development and poverty reduction? Is innovation enough or essential? I am sceptical about that.

Innovation surely plays a significant role. I agree that M-PESA, a Kenyan mobile banking and remittance service, dramatically improved financial access of the poor people, and the satellite of Facebook and Eutelsat might successfully deliver internet to remote African regions. I really like to see this kind of innovative efforts particularly by private sectors, and hope it will promote sustainable development.

Innovation is Like a Lottery

Photograph: DFID
Photograph: DFID

Because of its sexy sound, my worry is that governments and practitioners put too much emphasis on innovation and forget something more important. Promoting innovation is like waiting to win the bet. You never know what type of, when and whether Africa will have an innovative service or system.

While waiting the private sector innovates something to change the game, the public sector can play their role. That is industrial policy. My belief is that development partners support government’s effort by thinking together what governments need to do.

How Different are Innovation and KAIZEN?

In a seminar in New York last week, Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University, stressed importance of economic transformation and roles of industrial policy, and argued Africa can learn a lot from Japan. What was a key factor of Japan’s development? That is KAIZEN.

KAIZEN simply means ‘improvement’. While innovation requires leaders, charisma, technology and resources, KAIZEN need none of them. While innovation is done by a few geniuses, KAIZEN is done by all the people and workers. The major feature of KAIZEN is to promote behavioural change of people. It does not require anything new, so that any countries can start KAIZEN tomorrow.

So What is KAIZEN? How does It Work?

The KAIZEN concept consists of 5S including: seiri (sort), seiton (set), seiso (shine), seiketsu (standardise) and shitsuke (sustain).

  • Sort: Sort out & separate that which is needed & not needed in the area.
  • Straighten: Arrange items that are needed so that they are ready & easy to use. Clearly identify locations for all items so that anyone can find them & return them once the task is completed.
  • Shine: Clean the workplace & equipment on a regular basis in order to maintain standards & identify defects.
  • Standardise: Revisit the first three of the 5S on a frequent basis and confirm the condition of the Gemba using standard procedures.
  • Sustain: Keep to the rules to maintain the standard & continue to improve every day.

(KAIZEN Institute)

Photograph: JICA
Photograph: JICA

Under these concepts, each worker is asked to change their behaviour at factories, hospitals and offices. For example, sorting/setting tools and equipment at the end of days let workers start working quickly in the following day because they can find easily and would not lose tools. Shining the floor of factories everyday will make not only customers but also workers comfortable. It results in increased productivity and efficiency.

These activities may not produce a quick monetary impact, and I hear a lot of critiques particularly from those who obsess innovation to dramatically change the game quickly. But look at TOYOTA. It is the world leading company that practise KAIZEN for decades.

What is good in KAIZEN is to promote motivation. Each worker can recognise ‘change’ that they make on their own. It produces a good business cycle of improvement.

KAIZEN is Invention Without Innovation

KAIZEN is invention of everyday of the People. It is invention without additional technology and resources. KAIZEN is an innovation done by everybody to boost their own countries and villages.

I agree that KAIZEN has played a significant role in the development of Japan and can be applicable for Africa. Japan had no resources with ruined cities after the World War II. Without resource and innovation, Africa can still do something. That is KAIZEN.


Comments are closed.