Achievement Motivation and Kaizen

Article excerpt

Achievement Motivation and Kaizen

American industry has had to swallow no pill more bitter than that with "Made in Japan" stamped on it. The fact that much of the Japanese phenomenon can be attributed to the contributions of an American, Edwards Deming, only adds to the subsequent indigestion.

Despite the widely noted mimicry of the Japanese and their ability to enhance imported advice and technology, all of us who gawk at them share the perception that, to some degree, their accomplishments are a result of their culture, work ethic, homogeneity, and other intangibles that foster a never-say-die attitude of constant improvement. The Japanese, predictably, even have a word for it--kaizen.

Masaaki Imai, in his book, Kaizen, defines it as improvement. "Moreover," he says, "it means continuing improvement in personal life, home life, social life, and working life. When applied to the workplace, kaizen means continuing improvement involving everyone--managers and workers alike."

Kaizen, thus, is a cultural value that forms a substrate underlying the Japanese quality movement. The movement has become popular in America, at least since the NBC White Paper production called "If Japan Can ... Why Can't We?" First seen in 1979, the program suggested that the secret of Japanese success started after World War II with the intervention of Deming and his statistical quality-control procedures. Since then, dozens of major companies have become converts to total quality, with its teams, problem-solving techniques, and never-ending prescriptions for management involvement, communication, and training.

My experience with total quality improvement, or TQI, has convinced me that a "Made in America" version of kaizen is ready to go to work to transform management-driven efforts at change into more participative and innovative bottom-up initiatives.

The Western phenomenon is not new. It's called achievement motivation, and it lies midway between academic learning and motivation theory, and the power of positive thinking. It's in keeping with the "American ethic," and can be trained and reinforced using adult learning practices, to produce measurable results by fostering its own brand of kaizen culture.

Achievement motivation is linked with kaizen in several ways. Its developmental concepts and tactics can be integrated into existing organizational structures in the United States to create a spirit of constant improvement similar to the one that has been so successful in Japan.

The idea of constant improvement is one of the trickiest concepts to sell to American managers. In general, they don't seem to have a frame of reference to support it. In fact, the "good old work ethic," seems to boast counter-principles, if there are such things, that define the limits of quality. Here are a few:

* "Don't mess with success."

* "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

* "Leave well enough alone."

Such admonishments have become axiomatic in the American business culture.

I have often run into situations where a member of senior management will deliberately exclude one department or another from a quality improvement effort because, "they're doing a great job; we don't want to mess with them."

That's a little like faith healing. No one can account for the success, so, rather than risk losing it to analysis, executives are content to cross their fingers and hope that the alchemy that spawned it will persist.

Time and the decline of our economy have proved them wrong.

Processes and techniques that go unexamined eventually deteriorate. Some are somehow sustained by hard work and attention to detail, but even those quickly become dated through product and process innovation by competitors. Henry Ford's maxim, "You can have any color you want as long as it's back," gave rise to the birth of General Motors and bright colors as options. …