A New Look at
Continuous Improvement
©2009 Simon Revere Mouer III, all rights reserved




Kaizen-Teian is Japanese for a quality-improvement paradigm that has resulted in superior Japanese products being marketed in the US and worldwide.  Kaizen-Teian continues to works well and provide positive results in Japan, and has been successfully exported to Korea, India, and now in China.  Kaizen is a management-led process that introduces medium risk innovations into the work process.  Teian is a workgroup-led process that introduces low-risk improvements to the work process, and improves on the innovations introduced by kaizen.

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Total Quality Management

Total Quality Management (TQM) is the American counterpart of Japanese Kaizen.  TQM seldom, if ever, has a teian counterpart.  Because a teian equivalent is missing, TQM often falters or fails to be a sustained effort.  Even well-executed TQM cycles begin to give diminishing results until TQM is eventually abandoned altogether, never to be used again.  This is a shame, because TQM otherwise is a very positive process that can yield important innovations. 

Resistance to teian by American companies is partly because it is little known in western circles.  In addition, labor-management tensions, especially in unionized shops, lead to too much distrust between management and labor.  Also, because teian is missing, the TQM process tends to be overly broad in scope, which sometimes leads to resistance to implementing its recommendations.

Continuous improvement is a name given a movement to reinvigorate Kaizen-Teian in America.  However, it often is merely a change of name for TQM, without any other significant enhancements or changes.  For Continuous Improvement to avoid the fate of TQM, it must incorporate a workgroup-driven teian or its equivalent..

If Continuous Improvement is going to be a viable American equivalent, or better, to Japanese Kaizen-teian, then it will also need to address risk and corporate hierarchy, and differentiate the terms invention, innovation, and improvement

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 A New Look at Continuous Improvement

Risk and Hierarchy

Change can introduce uncertainty and apprehension into an organization.  The higher in the corporate hierarchy a proposed change originates, the greater the uncertainty and apprehension in the lower tiers.  One of the reasons Process Action Teams of TQM fail is that they take on too many changes too fast, unnecessarily generating an internal resistance to change. Another reason TQM runs into trouble is that many of the change proposals are either at too high a level for the Process Action Team’s competence and authority, or too low a level for the Process Action Team to empathize with.

In the figure to the tight, proposed changes are assigned according to what the risk to the company is if the change is implemented.  High risk changes are deemed inventions, and require an executive level review and decision.  Medium risk changes are deemed innovations, requiring management level review and decision.  Low risk changes are deemed improvements, which can be implemented by a line supervisor, or even a skilled journeyman. 

Invention, Innovation, and Improvement

There are important distinctions being made between invention, innovation, and improvement, and their relations to risk and corporate decision management.

Each high-risk change (invention) approved by a Hatsumei executive committee requires time to fully implement and be efficient.  It may take several medium-risk (innovation) cycles of Kaizen processes to fully accommodate a Hatsumaei-level invention.  Likewise, each medium-risk (innovation) change adopted through Kaizen at the management level may need several low-risk (improvement) adjustment cycles of Teian at the worker level to efficiently implement a Kaizen-level change.  This need to digest and implement change in multiple cycles is illustrated in the figure below:

Top-level Executive commitment

The Hatsumei-Kaizen-Teian process can have negative results.  To insure only positive results are obtained, a permanent executive-level champion of Continuous Improvement should be appointed, who shepherds the processes and insures that Process Action Teams of Kaizen are properly trained, resources available, facilitators are available when needed, and that a sustainable and continuous Teian program is implemented and funded. 

The Invention (Executive driven) Cycle (Hatsumei)

In the Continuous Improvement model suggested herein, there is an executive-driven cycle (Hatsumei), a management-driven cycle (Kaizen), and a worker-driven cycle (Teian.)  Much has been written of the Kaizen process, a little less has been written of the Teian process, but until now, with our coining of the term Hatsumei, virtually nothing has been written of  an executive-driven process.

There is no known existing literature for a formal executive-level assessment and action process to handle high-risk changes (inventions).  So we introduce it here, and designate the Japanese term Hatsumei (literal translation - invention) for the executive-driven cycle.  Hatsumei will contain guidance for policy decisions on issues with high risk or high capital requirements, such as plant location, organizational structure, span of control, levels of control, capitalized equipment procurement, equipment replacement policy and procedure, annual operating budgets, adoption of inventions, marketing strategies, product lines, employee compensation, relative comparison performance against competitors, benchmarking against industry leaders, and other issues and processes that require executive-level participation and decision making.

An invention is a very serious change that sets in motion severe reverberations throughout a company.  Companies who adopt an invention may be required to reorganize and restructure to accommodate the invention.  New management processes, and/or significantly altered existing processes, may require several cycles of kaizen to work out the management process bugs and inefficiencies that are inherent in any new major undertaking. 

Each cycle of Kaizen should be interspersed in time with several cycles of Teian.  This process should not be rushed, but it should be constantly promoted and encouraged, with on-the-spot cash rewards for improvements that contribute to the efficiency of the work processes.  It is usually only by trial and error that these Teian improvements are discovered by the actual workers involved.  It only takes one rejection to turn off a worker from making any future suggestions, so just the act of making an improvement suggestion should also be rewarded. 

It is most likely that innovation iterations of Kaizen-Teian will have diminishing results over time.  At some point in time, the cost to improve efficiency may outweigh the benefit received, and formal Kaizen processing should be discontinued for a while, until a new invention is considered. In contrast, formal Teian sessions searching for the minor ways to improve a process should probably continue on indefinitely.   


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Some heretofore ignored issues that have very significant impact on a corporation's competitive position in the market place, which are good candidates for a Hatsumei process, are briefly discussed below:


Span of Control

Japanese companies, and Asian companies in general, tend to have a tremendous natural advantage over western companies – a very flat management hierarchy.  A flat organizational structure translates into a higher cost efficiency in producing goods, all other factors being equal.  Japanese companies, and their other Asian counterparts, often have a span-of-control as much as 20 to 1, or more.  An American firm is considered well-managed if the span of control is 3 to 1.

In the above organizational group, Lee supervises five people.  He therefore has a span of control of 5

Hierarchy Levels


Related to span of control is how many organizational levels exist in an organization. Japanese companies tend to have only three to five levels of management.  American companies, on the other hand, seem to pride themselves on the number of management levels, which may exceed fifteen. 

On the above organization group, there are three hierarchal levels of management.  The span of control shown is also three, which gives a square organization, in which the levels of hierarchy equal the span of control.  However, the hierarchy levels in many American organizations far exceed the span of control.  The bottom level of the organization is non-management, or workers, which is level zero.

Hierarchy Premium

Most of us with any work experience know and accept that our boss is going to have a higher salary than we are.  Anywhere from 15% more to 50%, or  more.  And out boss's boss will likewise have a higher salary than our boss - and so on up the management line.  This "extra" pay because of hierarchy position is a hierarchy premium.  It tends to occur through out the organization as a constant factor, but it can also be increasing with hierarchy level. 

One of the corrupting forces leading to numerous management levels is the propensity to substantially increase salaries and benefits with each higher level - the progression being exponential, not linear.  Savvy CEO's know that by organizing such as to maximize the number of hierarchy levels, they can make their astronomical salaries seem reasonable.  The formula most often used is not an arithmetical increase from the base level, but a percentage increase on the prior level.




©2009 Simon R Mouer III, PhD, PE
All Rights Reserved