What Are the Basic Human Values? We’re Useless If Productivity Is Most Important


The days of Kaizen activities are like the highlight of Apollo 13

The spaceship was about to penetrate the atmosphere in the shortage of electric power. The crews and the ground staff of NASA knew enough about it. While running out of time, they made many trials and errors. They tenaciously kept trying every possibility no matter how trivial it is, like changing a sequence of activation processes, skipping some of them, etc. Finally, they succeeded in securing the minimum required supply of electric power for atmospheric re-entry. This is the highlight of the movie “Apollo 13.” As it’s far smaller in scale, craft people in our factory are engaged in improvement (Kaizen) activities. Most of them are really small and trivial, but I remember the famous scene of the movie every time seeing those Kaizen activities.

Our labor productivity looks low just because of deflation

Japan is often said to be lowest in labor productivity in the OECD countries. Many Japanese people believe the low labor productivity hampers economic growth, and blame themselves for that. I don’t agree at all with such an idea. The truth is completely opposite. Our labor productivity just looks low because of the slow growth economy of Japan. Simply, this is the failure of the government policy. The Japanese government has not done anything effective to stop deflation for about 30 years. It is just manipulated by the Ministry of Finance (my old work place, though) that ignorantly keeps on warning the possibility of inflation by increasing the balance of government bonds. This is not a funny joke to us.

I believe we private companies basically have been doing our very best, but whether Japan is actually low in labor productivity is not my point today. As I was writing before, we don’t need to get heated any more with productivity improvement because we don’t know if it will bring happiness to our lives in the end.

Two guys are making a presentation with some big explanation boards, and some people around are listening.

Let’s enjoy not the result but the process of productivity improvement

I didn’t mean to deny the value of productivity improvement completely. In fact, I like to see the Kaizen activities made by the craft people in our factory. They often have sessions to present their ideas, and sometimes seem to enjoy finding the unknown side of themselves, such as performance or aptitude as a presenter, facilitator, etc. Without the kaizen activities, they might never have noticed their secret talents in their daily work (furniture making). As productivity improvement ends up confronting us with the harsh fact that humans are inferior and useless (compared with robots), I think it’s much more healthy to try to find enjoyment in the process of productivity improvement, like our craft people do.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

Photo Credit: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/04/apollo-13-anniversary-pandemic/609874/