The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

The Kaizen Connection

The Japanese word for improvement translates to manufacturing growth in Ethiopia.

With its national fabric woven from diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious threads, Ethiopia is no stranger to multiculturalism. Diversification is key to the country’s economic advance too. Although agriculture generated 47 percent of GDP in 2013 and industry just 10.8 percent, the country’s industrial production is growing and thus stands to generate a greater percentage of GDP in the future. In fact, Ethiopia placed in the first decile of industrial production growth rates worldwide for 2013. And Ethiopia’s quest to expand its industrial base led to another cross-cultural find: the Japanese concept of kaizen

The factory floor of Zenith Gebes-Eshet, a manufacturer of personal-care goods in Addis Ababa, is now an organized and efficient operation after implementing the practice of kaizen.

The word kaizen translates literally to “continuous improvement,” but it has come to mean a good deal more. Kaizen was conceived during the postwar era, as Japan rebuilt its economy and sought strategies for improving business processes, especially in manufacturing. The goal of kaizen is to increase productivity and product quality by “focusing on working behavior, human-resources development and promotion of innovation,” says Kimiaki Jin, chief representative in the Ethiopia office of the Japan International Cooperation Agency. (JICA is the Japanese counterpart to the United States Agency for International Development and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.) 

The goal of kaizen is to increase productivity and product quality by “focusing on working behavior, human-resources development and promotion of innovation.”

In 2008, Meles Zenawi, then prime minister of Ethiopia, traveled to Tokyo for a conference on African development. Impressed with what he learned about kaizen, he began promoting its use in Ethiopia, which became the third African country to introduce the philosophy (after Tunisia and Egypt; Tanzania has since followed suit). The Ethiopian government sees it as a powerful tool for meeting the country’s goal of achieving middle-income status by 2025. 

A pilot program with 30 participating enterprises rolled out during 2009-2011, and shortly afterward, the government launched the Ethiopian Kaizen Institute. Led by Getahun Tadesse, the institute works in partnership with JICA to train consultants who, in turn, train the businesses enrolled in the program. As of August, 250 companies and 32,950 people had completed kaizen training in Ethiopia, according to JICA officer Nigussie Fekadu.

To gain entry into the program, companies must submit an application and undergo a review. Once accepted, companies organize employees into “quality-control circles,” small groups that meet daily to troubleshoot challenges and review suggestions. 

Kotebe Metal Tools Factory, located in Addis Ababa, completed its training and began implementing kaizen less than a year ago. The factory — organized into five workshops, each with 30 employees who are responsible for manufacturing a single hand tool — conducted a kaizen test run with its workshop that produces sickles, used to harvest grains. 

JICA’s kaizen expert Mr. Seiji Sugimoto ( third from left) provides guidance to trainees as they analyze the processes and methods at a concrete block manufacturing plant in Addis Ababa.

Training began with an introductory lesson about the “five S” principles that form the foundation of kaizen: sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain. As training progressed, the company encouraged small changes in its production process and technology, such as a change in the tool used to polish sickles. This sparked a “mind shift” that, in keeping with the kaizen principle of participation, got all workers involved in spotting and suggesting cost reductions and process improvements. 

The result: Daily production in the workshop rose from 800 to 2,000 tools. In light of the initial results, Kotebe will roll out kaizen company-wide, one tool workshop at a time — a process that will take at least a year, according to Kidane Abebe, Kotebe’s production and maintenance manager.

The self-directed nature of kaizen is central to its success. “We don’t really push participants to obey certain rules or regulations,” says JICA’s Kimiaki Jin. “We encourage the people to create something new by their own capacity and by their own ideas.” 

The Ethiopian Kaizen Institute has been charting the program’s progress since 2012 and expects to release an initial survey of results in late 2014 or early 2015. One interim gauge, however, emerged in mid-2014, when 30 program participants submitted their self-reported results in connection with Ethiopia’s National Kaizen Awards. 

After auditing and verifying those results, the institute found that participating companies had achieved an average 37-percent increase in productivity — far greater than the 10-percent target result. In addition, they reported a 55-percent reduction in waste (against a 50-percent target) and a 31-percent reduction in product defects (against a 10-percent target). 

At Kotebe Metal Tools Factory, management believes that kaizen will even help the company to engage in foreign commerce. Though its first trading partners are likely to be in neighboring African countries, it also plans to export to Asia. At that point, the initiative’s cross-cultural impact will have come full circle, and the factory will have evolved from kaizen trainee to global supplier. That’s just the kind of improvement the trainers hope to achieve — and one that may provide a model for other African nations to follow.

A freelance journalist and editorial consultant to NGOs, Randy B. Hecht works with clients in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. She owns Aphra Communications and publishes