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.
|Nowadays you bring an iPod, not a Walkman for music.|
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.
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.
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 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..
iPod: Carl Berkeley
Walkman: Grant Hutchinson
Prius badge: RaeVynn Sands