Killer Kaizen

Posted on 24 Jul 2008 by The Manufacturer

Is the elimination of waste more important than life or death? For some it just might be, finds Rob Thompson...

Bill Shankly quote:

Someone said “football is more important than life and death to you” and I said “Listen, it’s more important than that.”

Is the elimination of waste more important than life and death?

A major criticism of the Toyota Production System is that while it:

may bring good benefit for companies, the system may induce new issues too because the system does not always think about workers. In fact, Toyota has issues of Karoshi/major depression, etc.

Karoshi can be translated quite literally from Japanese as “death from overwork“.

About 355 workers fell severely ill or died from overwork in 2006, 7.6 percent up from the previous year.

Unpaid overtime is routine in factories and offices across Japan.

Consider Mr Uchino, a manager of quality control at Toyota:

Mr Uchino was constantly training workers, attending meetings and writing reports when not on the production line. Toyota treated almost all that time as voluntary and unpaid. So did the Toyota Labour Standards Inspection Office, part of the labour ministry. But the court ruled that the long hours were an integral part of his job. On December 14th the government decided not to appeal against the verdict.

The ruling is important because it may increase the pressure on companies to treat “free overtime” (work that an employee is obliged to perform but not paid for) as paid work. That would send shockwaves through corporate Japan, where long, long hours are the norm.

At Toyota, long hours are been built into factory life — in the form of long, after-hours kaizen events that are supposedly voluntary — and are considered a key to the company’s success. Participation in the sessions, though, often figured in a worker’s prospects for promotion and higher pay.

Is this really “Respect for People“, the second pillar of Toyota’s success?

Toyota announced in May that it would begin paying overtime to workers who take part in the kaizen events.

Will this reduce the amount of deaths? I don’t think so. Who wants to be a well paid corpse?

Deming stressed it was key to have an appreciation of a system. A system is a network of components which work together to try to achieve common aims. If the common aim is to cause premature death, then perhaps we need to take a long, hard objective look at the Toyota Production System.

Let Rob know what you think…