Applying Japanese Productivity Methods in Africa: Can Kaizen help to bring about decent jobs and inclusive growth

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Amidst December’s US-African Leaders Summit and ongoing debates around the impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, watchers of international development cooperation might be forgiven for having missed an announcement in 2022 that didn’t make as many front-page headlines. Last August, the government of Japan used the occasion of its triennial conference with African heads of state (this time in Tunis) to pledge an additional $30 billion in aid and investment to the continent.

Against a backdrop of great power rivalry, this quieter announcement is significant not only for what it says about Japan’s desire for a larger role in Africa, but about what it wants that role to look like. Particularly distinctive is the aim to channel some of this investment into the training of 58,000 people in private sector development, a goal that ties into a longstanding emphasis on human resource development for industrialization.

In this post, we explain just what makes this seemingly mundane approach both interesting and ambitious. We focus especially on kaizen, a set of productivity measures first developed in post-war Japan and now taught in workplaces across Africa. What happens when kaizen is applied in contexts as different as Ethiopia and South Africa?  

The Kaizen method

Kaizen initially developed as a post-war consensus between labour and business in a devastated and resource-poor Japan. At first a set of loose, unwritten practices associated especially with Toyota, over time it has become more codified with the aim of making it transferable. Under kaizen, employees work in teams to come up with practical suggestions and communicate these to management; small but continuous improvements are emphasised over radical restructuring; and the meticulous elimination of muda (waste) is preferred over staff layoffs. The workfloor—rather than the back office—is where the real change is meant to happen.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) launched the first African kaizen project in Tunisia in 2006. Former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi requested an Ethiopian project three years later, and an additional seven African countries have by now followed suit. The local impetus to promote kaizen was particularly strong when African economies were experiencing growth during the commodity boom that started in the mid-2000s.

Taking advantage of such momentum, JICA and the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) in 2017 launched the Africa Kaizen Initiative (AKI), the aim of which was to focus on policy advocacy, mutual learning among countries and the standardization of methodologies. The AKI organizes an annual conference, gives out yearly kaizen awards and has begun to collaborate with the Pan-African Productivity Association (PAPA). It seems, then, that demand for kaizen continues even in these more straitened times.

The need for jobs

With up to 12 million young Africans entering the job market every year, there’s little doubt that job creation is one of the key challenges facing the continent, and that African leaders are eager for faster industrialization to fill the gap. In the 21st century, China was one of the first development partners to capitalize on this desire and promote export-oriented foreign direct investment in Africa. Burned by criticism of the embattled structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s, Western donors were initially skeptical of officially sanctioning a similar approach, but have over the past decade largely fallen in line.

Today, donors generally seek to tread a fine line between promoting economic growth and mitigating some of its most negative consequences though adherence to environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) principles. Jobs must be decent and growth inclusive, agree the SDGS and their signatories, but how to bring this about in practice is a more difficult question.

As one of us has argued more extensively elsewhere, JICA’s kaizen promotion is unusual in combining the top-down logics of industrialization with more bottom-up logics of empowerment and human development on the workfloor itself. We call this middle way “low modernism”, and we think it might offer one way out of the impasse created between the promise of industrial productivity and its flipside: the concern, often expressed by civil society and human rights advocates, that it will crush ordinary workers underfoot.

Reconciling these tensions, even on the workfloor, remains a challenge in different settings.

Lessons from Ethiopia and South Africa

In Ethiopia, for example, kaizen confronted a local industrial sector gradually emerging from decades of socialist control. Weak unionization, hierarchical workplace structures and low productivity presented challenges both for worker empowerment and economic growth, making the country a strong candidate for improvements under kaizen. Ethiopia’s statist legacy allowed for the fastest, most centralized rollout of kaizen on the continent.

At the time of writing, the state-owned Ethiopian Kaizen Institute has sent 160 locally-certified consultants into over 270 large and medium enterprises, and has established the world’s first PhD programme in Kaizen Management. But a focus on such quantitative achievements has not necessarily been matched by the more difficult-to-measure, qualitative changes to managerial and worker mindsets. Now that the country has moved away from state-led industrial policy and kaizen has become only one of many business management tools being implemented in the private sector, the sustained application needed for long-term structural change seems even more difficult to achieve.

South Africa’s economy has also struggled in recent years. In a much-needed bid to reduce income disparities (the country has the world’s highest GINI coefficient), the government supports black-owned businesses and economic transformation. However, problems remain: the private sector lacks dynamism, unemployment remains high and infrastructure facilities, especially around power-generation, are deteriorating.

Because the country’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in manufacturing are not yet performing as well as the government would like, JICA launched a kaizen pilot support program in 2016 targeting eight companies: the results were promising. South Africa’s Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (dtic) and JICA have therefore begun to incorporate kaizen within the existing support program for SMEs as an additional input. It is hoped that this may promote collaboration between management and workers and contribute to the equitable sharing of benefits, and that South Africa might be able to adapt Japan’s post-war experience with participatory workplaces to its own context and history.

Investing in people

Kaizen is unusual among private-sector development programmes in that its primary goals are neither to create a “level playing field” nor to develop physical infrastructure; instead, it seeks to invest in people. A major challenge is the scaling up of activities that essentially engage with the skills and motivation of individual human beings. These cannot simply be mechanically expanded on the production line or factory floor, but instead rely on interpersonal learning and communication.

Another challenge, as with many low modernist projects, lies in ensuring local ownership not only of the inputs into the process, but of the process itself. On the one hand, kaizen’s relative flexibility and use of frontline expertise makes it more adaptable to indigenous value systems than comparable tools implemented in Africa, such as Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) or Six Sigma. When successful, it can empower a locally-owned private sector and avoid over-reliance on foreign direct investment.

On the other hand, there is no getting around the fact that the inclusion of any methodology as part of official development assistance represents an importation from abroad. Even as simple an injunction as “you should be able to lay your hands on any tool you need within thirty seconds” relies on the debatable assumption that workers did not appreciate the need for this rule before kaizen was introduced.

While this dynamic might leave some in Africa uneasy, others believe that African firms seeking to benefit from global value chains have little choice. Most face a turbulent and uncertain environment; the development of digital technologies, lingering uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and the rise of geopolitics all seem to demand adaptation at a breakneck pace. But radical and breakthrough innovations remain rare and difficult to achieve, and firms may be better off striving for continuous and incremental improvement. Such changes through kaizen are often more easily accepted because workers are also involved in the process.

Kaizen also promotes multitasking and mutual support among workers. Giving workers the time to adapt and develop new skills allows them to take on new roles within firms rather than leading to their retrenchment. Kaizen is therefore often more able to reconcile the economic interests of management and the social interests of workers than some of the alternatives being mooted by outside consultants hired to rationalize “uncompetitive” businesses, and—if successfully applied—can contribute to SDG 8’s vision of decent work. One way to increase ownership in the process is to accord an important role for those states that command legitimacy and broad-based support, so that the process feeds into larger national agendas of job creation and growth.

Flexibility at all levels

It is important that kaizen itself adapt, and that its promotors continuously work to make their own methodologies more effective. For example, in digital industries, agile SCRUM is a methodology of software development derived from the Toyota Production System’s use of team activities and continuous improvement. One South African company has begun to use cloud computing to monitor progress on 5S (a simple housekeeping tool practiced in kaizen). In emerging economies, the relative absence of vested interests and sunk costs in past industrial processes might actually make the use of such digital technologies easier than in more established economies.

Kaizen promotion in Africa might inspire other donors, African states and development partners to create and expand on similar initiatives. These will have their own peculiarities, and some are already underway independently—think of NGOs offering trainings to female workers on gender-specific challenges they face in the workplace or agricultural extension projects which work with farmers facing the effects of climate change. Interventions like these can be regarded as low modernist insofar as they pragmatically accept that job creation and increased productivity have important roles to play in development, but are committed to working intimately with and learning from those on the front lines.

They are not silver bullets, but may nevertheless represent a useful third way between the dichotomies that have for too long stopped us from imagining a better future for Africa.

Elsje Fourie (@ElsjeEFourie) is a tenured Assistant Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Through the 3WE project, she is currently studying the wellbeing of female Ethiopian workers in the apparel and horticultural GVCs.

Kimiaki Jin is a Chief Advisor, Quality and Productivity Improvement (Kaizen) Project jointly implemented by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, South Africa and JICA. He is an examiner of Africa Kaizen Awards under the Africa Kaizen Initiative (AKI).

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