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Ethiopia set up the Ethiopian Kaizen Institute (EKI) in November 2011 with the support of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Japanese foreign aid arm.  Kaizen was found to be suitable to the economic and social development policy and strategy the government of Ethiopia pursues.
The Institute announced recently its plans to make Ethiopia the knowledge center for African Kaizen in the coming five years. For its implementation, various universities have already been selected to train post graduate students in the field of KAIZEN.
Capital’s Eskedar Kifle sat down with Getahun Tadesse, the Director General of the Ethiopian KAIZEN Institute to discuss its accomplishments and plans in the future. Excerpts:
Capital: What does KAIZEN means? What are  its origins and how was the decision to implement it in Ethiopia taken?
Getahun Tadesse:
KAIZEN is a Japanese leadership philosophy which employs an alternative system from western ways of leadership as it has its own procedures and techniques. It is a system of continuous improvement in quality, technology, processes, company culture, productivity, safety and leadership. To implement this system, all that is needed is to have a change of attitude and knowledge of the system.
The application of KAIZEN started in the 1950s after the industrial revolution. Following the defeat of Japan in World War II, cheap goods were produced in the country and were unreliable, preventing Japan from competing at the international level, and nobody wanted to buy products manufactured there.
This became a matter of great concern to the Japanese and they wanted to change the whole system. They decided to learn from the west and studied how countries in that region worked on quality control and they brought such knowledge into their own country. They mixed what they learned from the west with their own ideas and established a quality and productivity control system and implemented it at the national level.
Through the implementation of KAIZEN Japan was able to produce goods that are sought out all over the world. Now ‘Made in Japan’ simply means high quality and standards.
The philosophy was introduced in Ethiopia after the Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD) held back in 2008. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi attended the conference and was aware of African countries that have been successful through KAIZEN, including countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.
After hearing the reports on the successful application of KAIZEN in African countries and conducted studies, the PM approached the Japanese government and asked for cooperation regarding the implementation of KAIZEN in Ethiopia. Through the assistance of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the government of Ethiopia transferred KAIZEN to the country, established an institution and then started to implement it.
Capital:  How do you collaborate with JICA?
JICA provides technical assistance. They deploy experts to our country and conduct the required trainings. Right now there are around ten consultants working with us. It is all about capacity building.
Capital: Through the capacity building trainings JICA provides, has the Ethiopian KAIZEN Institute managed to produce its own local experts who can train others?
Getahun: Through the first project that lasted from 2009 to 2011, we have managed to acquire basic knowledge on how to implement KAIZEN and how to train people. We applied great effort and developed manuals and other helpful documents and used them to train employees in various companies on how to successfully implement KAIZEN. It has been only about a year since the institute came into existence and during this short period of time, we have set up a structure and trained numerous young people, accomplishing quite a lot.
Capital: Where has the institute implemented KAIZEN?
We have given priority to strategic institutions, those that undertake investments on a large scale and are operating in the manufacturing sector. I can say that we have done a lot in the sugar industry. These industries are huge, not just in investments, but also in the number of work force they employ, which is in the tens of thousands. Producers such as Wonji, Metehara, Fincha and recently Tendaho can be cited as examples. In these companies we have worked a lot in the development of the KAIZEN work culture and continuous improvement. We provided trainings to everyone. Through these efforts, the companies have been able to register big changes and we have awarded them in recognition of this fact. Now we have started to get involved in the construction industry and the government’s low cost housing development project. The government wants to provide houses in a cost-effective manner to residents while maintaining a certain level of quality. We are working together to make that happen.
Capital: Does the Institute approach companies or is it vice versa in regards to training?
The companies approach us for our services. Everyone wants to implement KAIZEN, but we do not yet have the capacity to provide services to all that are asking for it at once. Therefore, we have come up with a set of criteria to screen them.
Capital: What are the criteria? 
There are two ways in which we go about it. If it is on a project level where JICA is involved, the companies need to be located and operating in Addis Ababa and its surrounding areas. This is because JICA consultants do not work outside of these locales. The second criterion is that the companies have to be middle and big scale companies and need to have a real desire to implement the KAIZEN philosophy.
If the Japanese are not involved and the Institute is working on its own, we focus on industries that have been given priority in the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP, which is currently the manufacturing sector, especially those companies whose products are thought to substitute imported products and whose products can bring in a lot of foreign currency to the country.
We also work on helping Small and Micro Enterprises (SMEs) indirectly. We train bodies that do consulting works for SMEs.
It can be said that we are overwhelmed by requests from different companies but we have to prioritize.
Capital: In the future, are you planning to offer your services to small scale companies?
Right now, what we are planning to do is train institutions that support different industries. For example, for the textile industry there is the Ethiopian Textile Industry Development Institute (TIDI); when it comes to leather, there is the Leather Industry Development Institute (LIDI), and so on. We have to work with these institutes, because if we plan to reach every available company, we will never be able to cover all areas. We also have to branch out to serve industries located in other regions of the country and not just focus on Addis Ababa and its surroundings. There are many companies that operate on a large scale in different regions, especially those involved in agriculture. In the regional states, there are different managing institutes, and we have extensive plans to work with them so that they can effectively implement KAIZEN across the country. That is what we are planning to do in the near future. These institutions need to become knowledge centers, and they need to build their capacities to be able to assist the different sectors. KAIZEN philosophy is something that can be applied in all places, even at the household level; it can be applied on an individual basis also. Like I said, it is all about a change of attitude. It has to be implemented in schools, at the kindergarten level, primary and secondary education level and then in universities. It can be, and should be, applied in all things. It also needs to be translated into the different Ethiopian languages.
For all this to happen, we need to build our capacity.
Capital: During its one year operation what would you say is its biggest accomplishment?
The fact that the institute has been established by itself is a big accomplishment I believe. Then comes the way we have been able to train young people who we usually recruit right after school, and instructing and guiding them to become experts; they have gone on to consult big companies on KAIZEN, and that is a big accomplishment as well.
Another thing we consider as a big achievement is the way we introduced KAIZEN. We extensively used the media. The promotion and communication work we have been doing has been successful and seeing companies implementing KAIZEN successfully and being recognized for it on a national level as performing a good job is a great accomplishment.
Capital: How many people have been trained by the institute so far?
Over all, last year we managed to train around 11,000 people and established over 1,500 KAIZEN groups and out of these we have recognized 395 KAIZEN development groups for showing the most success in implementing the philosophy.
Capital: What is the difference between Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) and KAIZEN? Is the latter one better?
After Japan became extremely successful with the application of KAIZEN, the country was able to penetrate the international market, especially the U.S market, with its products. That was when the U.S started to rethink its approach in production, and through that BPR came into existence, they had to re-engineer the whole system. BPR is also successful in this way.
There are some basic differences between BPR and KAIZEN. When you look at the way KAIZEN works, its first focus is on people, changing people’s attitude and building their capacity. The Japanese say “Before we make cars, we make people”. This means first developing the human capacity, then KAIZEN looks at the overall process.
When you look at BPR, the system first looks at the working process, then quality, production, and so on.
Capital: Why is KAIZEN better for Ethiopia?
A lot of people ask this question. They say, at the beginning all the talk was on BPR and then now there is KAIZEN. It is a good question. When the government became aware of BPR, it brought the concept to Ethiopia and implemented it. It actually has been very successful in different governmental offices. In the past, it took a lot of time just to obtain a Kebele ID card. Now, it only takes a few minutes. This is one of the results of the implementation of BPR. The problem is not BPR in itself but, because it wasn’t implemented effectively, as it should be. That’s why it has not shown more progress.
When the government discovered KAIZEN, it brought it to the country. So, it has not discarded BPR as such; we are just working together on the success stories of BPR and making it better through the implementation of KAIZEN.
We were not able to bring the kind of change needed through BPR, but now we have been able to do that through KAIZEN.
KAIZEN philosophy states that there is always a better way of doing one thing; it encourages people to choose the better way. Do not linger in status quo; it kills people and it erodes knowledge; therefore, there needs to be continuous improvement.