The lean Manufacturing and Japanese culture

Some people may think that implementing TPS is a set of tools (5S, Gemba Walk, Hoshin Kanri, 5 Why’s, 8D, RCCA, 6-sigmas, black belt program, SPC, …) that need to be implemented and often they miss the point of promoting the Japanese culture (or at least lean culture and values) that is the real foundations to make these systems sustainable.

In this post, I would like to share how Japanese culture and mindset take precedence on TPS (Toyota Production System) or lean manufacturing systems.


If you refer to the Toyota literature, you will find that the company has 5 core values. Those are Challenge, Kaizen, Genchi Gembutsu, Respect, and Teamwork. We will cover each of them versus Japanese culture. We will see how TPS inherited (or at least found good foundations to build on) those values from the Japanese culture.

Rather than providing theoretical explanations, I will illustrate my purpose with concrete examples for each of those values.

Challenge AND KAIZEN in THE Japanese & lean culture

Challenge and Kaizen are truly an intrinsic and largely shared value in Japanese culture. They convey the spirit of excellence, continuous improvement, perseverance, innovation, perfection.

While most of the TPS literature refers to this mindset as Kaizen (which is the most appropriate word for the industry), in the Japanese daily language this word is not often used. The closest concept is monozukuri (wikipedia) and it literally means ‘making of things’ in Japanese (mono = things and zukuri = make).

The broader meaning of monozukuri encompasses a synthesis of technological prowess, know-how, and spirit of Japan’s manufacturing practices. The spirit includes a sincere attitude towards production with pride, skill and dedication, and the pursuit of innovation and perfection.

This concept is definitely not a burden or something pushed by a supervisor to the front line. It is a way of pursuing innovation and perfection, often disregarding profit or balance sheet.

This mindset of perfection is embedded in Japanese culture for centuries and just as examples see the below tree that has more than a hundred years. This perfection was initiated much earlier than the TPS literature.

There are many other traditional examples that illustrate the pursuit of excellence such as ceramic work, wood work,

RESPECT in THE Japanese & lean culture

Moving to respect for people and teamwork, this is also an intrinsic value in the Japanese culture before being an important pillar in all lean systems. The translation reads; “I accidentally knocked over your bicycle and broke the bell. I’m very sorry.”

The image has been seen millions of times and gained thousands of comments from both Japanese people and foreign nationals alike, despite the 1000 yen banknote only being worth about $10. Why is it that a simple act of kindness such as this invites such a powerful response? Is it such an unusual act as to be surprising?

Another example from my own experience in Japan, lost items are almost universally found and returned to the owner, and Japanese people are brought up with an exceptionally strong ability to recognize the needs of others, which in turn fosters a strong sense of community responsibility and trust.

Respect is also meant for senior members who will support younger employees in learning about the company and lean culture. Known as the nenkou-joretsu system, the hierarchy system is rooted in Confucianism, which emphasizes social relationships based on each individual’s position in society.

For many years, Japanese companies maintained a seniority-based wage and promotion system. This meant that all new employees would be issued a standard basic wage and receive pay increases or promotions based on their years of service rather than on merit. In recent years, however, Japanese firms have been seeing a change from the seniority system to the more globally recognized merit-based system.

TEAMWORK in THE Japanese & lean culture

Perhaps one of the most important values of Japanese culture, group harmony (wa) prioritises the needs of society rather than personal interest or opinion.

Instead of making decisions based on individual authority, Japanese companies tend to take a holistic approach, emphasizing group consensus in order to maintain peaceful cooperation within the organization.

Employees are expected to go above and beyond to make accommodations with one another in the name of harmony. For instance, workers may refrain from taking holidays to avoid becoming a burden to colleagues or work overtime as leaving early is often deemed to exemplify individualism and selfishness, thereby breaking the so-called ‘harmony’ of the team, further contributing to the issue of death by overwork.

On a more positive note, Japanese managers are also often responsible for taking up the role of a mentor, providing their employees with guidance whilst encouraging group harmony.

Japan’s emphasis on harmony between employees extends to the layout of the office, which often has desks grouped together by teams. Rather than having individual cubicles, the open structure of the office, or obeya-seido, seeks to break down barriers between coworkers in order to facilitate communication and cohesion in the workplace.

Due to the open plan of the office, it is not uncommon for Japanese workplaces to be crowded and noisy, which may come as a surprise to those who are used to a quieter office setting.


Another example that covers both Respect and Teamwork is the concept of Nemawashi. It is a Japanese word that describes gardening techniques to prepare the soil when planting a tree. It consists of uncovering the roots before planting a tree and each portion of the root system is given individual attention and readied for the impending change. In the corporate context, nemawashi works similarly, as each part of the organization is listened to and its needs addressed, through one-on-one discussions and small meetings.

In Japan it’s typical for small subsets of the participants to get together prior to the meeting.  This allows for more frank and vigorous discussion than is possible when everyone is together in the larger meeting.

Then, senior people expect to be let in on new proposals prior to an official meeting.  If they find out about something for the first time during the meeting, they will feel that they have been ignored, and they may reject it for that reason alone.  Thus, it’s important to approach these people individually before the meeting.  This provides an opportunity to introduce the proposal to them and gauge their reaction.  This is also a good chance to hear their input.



The below video combines teamwork and excellence in performing tasks :

External Links:

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