Kaizen can stifle innovation and risk taking

Kaizen, if used on its own, can stifle risk taking and the ability to produce creative innovations. Here we look at two companies where too much kaizen resulted in the destruction of the Walkman, Sony's flagship product, and Toyota, where less kaizen let them pull away as the undisputed leader of the hybrid car.

Kaizen, if used on its own, can stifle risk taking and the ability to produce creative innovations. Here we look at two companies where too much kaizen resulted in the destruction of the Walkman, Sony's flagship product, and Toyota, where less kaizen let them pull away as the undisputed leader of the hybrid car.

By Karn G. Bulsuk


One of the greatest weaknesses of kaizen is that it focuses on the past: make what were doing better. While kaizen is great, one of the major problems of kaizen is that it stifles risk taking and innovation. Kaizen encourages you to play it safe and keep improving on what you already have and promotes an inward looking culture where market opportunities may be missed.

Unfortunately, the next disruptive technology or product rarely comes from kaizen and playing it safe. Rather, it comes from making big bets, taking risks and creative innovations, which may go beyond products that a company may have initially offered.

No longer do you bring around a Walkman for music, but an iPod
Sony is an excellent example of where kaizen has failed it. The once ubiquitous Walkman cassette tape player was not Sony technology, but rather taken by Sony and developed to perfection. The same story was for the CD player: originally developed by Phillips, Sony took the technology and perfected it to form through kaizen.

What they didn't do well was to figure out that by the end of the millennium, the wind would blow towards digital music in the form of MP3s. Sony's permanent decline in the digital music player market would come in the form of Apple, whose unorthodox entry into the market via the popular iPod managed to unseat the formerly unsinkable Walkman.

Sony responded to the competition as anticipated, using kaizen to produce even slimmer and more colourful portable CD players with ever better battery life,. They even made improvements on their Mini Disc (MD) system so that users could transfer MP3s (but only via conversion through propriety Sony software) and even store up to 1 GB of data on the small discs, but it was too little, too late. The iPod was a disruptive product which redefined the rules of the game, where ease of use, a large music catalog via iTunes and the coolness factor played a large role in cementing Apple's success, and sealing the demise of the Walkman. Kaizen simply didn't provide the speed, nor the product that could respond to something this disruptive.

One of the ways that companies get around such problems is to put innovators on the right team. When Toyota developed their Prius hybrid car, Toyota executives deliberately chose Dr. Shigeyuri Hori to lead the development team, because he was innovative, able to think outside the box and was different from others. Tellingly enough, one of the reasons he was chosen was because he was untainted by previous experience in car development, and so he could approach the challenge of developing a hybrid car from a fresh perspective: no kaizen required here.

While kaizen is and will remain an important part of the quality repertoire, it's important to remember that kaizen isn't the answer to all problems. In fact, kaizen on its own will stifle innovation as people forget that to survive in today's market, you need to make something new every now and then.

Make kaizen a rule, but don't make it the rule.

Related articles:
An excellent article published by Newsweek in 2007 asking "Why Apple isn't Japanese" provides an excellent analysis of why Sony has fallen so far from its mantle. 
CNET also recently published a piece titled "Sony's fall and Japan's hang-ups" explaining why Sony, and Japan in general, continues to experience severe economic hangovers, even over a decade since their bubble burst. Kaizen is identified as a main issue, along with other very valid points.


Photo credits:
iPod: Carl Berkeley
Walkman: Grant Hutchinson
Prius badge: RaeVynn Sands 

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Karn Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: Kaizen can stifle innovation and risk taking
Kaizen can stifle innovation and risk taking
Kaizen, if used on its own, can stifle risk taking and the ability to produce creative innovations. Here we look at two companies where too much kaizen resulted in the destruction of the Walkman, Sony's flagship product, and Toyota, where less kaizen let them pull away as the undisputed leader of the hybrid car.
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Karn Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead
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