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Kaizen and the art of human wa maintenance

An ex-resident and frequent visitor finds convenience and joy in the little things that Japan does so damn well

by Glenn Newman

Little things matter. This truth is hard-wired into the Japanese psyche.

Kaizen — the Japanese practice of continuous improvement through small, incremental changes — is well-known and influential worldwide. At least in the West, kaizen is primarily thought of as a method for improving manufacturing, engineering and other business processes.

But kaizen goes much deeper in Japan. Kaizen here is organic, ubiquitous and attuned to the physical and psychological needs of human beings. At its best, this “human-scale kaizen” (HSK) eliminates or eases many of the mundane uncertainties, annoyances and embarrassments of daily life.

Here are but a few of the innumerable examples of HSK in Japan:

End to restroom occupancy anxiety

You’re at the neighborhood coffee shop and need to use the restroom. If you’re in the United States or much of the world, there’s generally no way to know if the toilet is already occupied without turning the doorknob or knocking on the door. Awkward!

In Japan, you can rest assured that, in almost every single-occupancy public bathroom, engaging the lock on the inside will automatically display the occupancy status on the outside. Occupancy indicators are not unique to Japan, of course, but perhaps nowhere else (other than airplanes) are they employed so universally or helpfully.

Time-saving subway car charts

You could write a book about all of the methods used by Japanese mass transit operators to improve the efficiency and convenience of trains, subways and buses. I’ll focus on one, since it seems to be underused by the non-Japanese population.

Subway platforms are crowded and long, and stations usually have multiple exits. You can get where you’re going by randomly selecting a subway car and then braving the packed platform at your stop, but how much more efficient it would be if you knew which car will arrive at your stop nearest to your exit or transfer.

Problem solved! Detailed charts are posted at most subway station platforms displaying precisely which exits and subway transfer points at each station on the line are closest to each arriving car. This simple measure saves riders time and reduces platform crowding.

Pervasive public maps

In the same vein as subway car charts are the maps conveniently posted throughout urban areas. Undoubtedly part of the impetus for public maps is to mitigate the effects of Japan’s haphazard streetscapes. But maps are helpful even in less confusing urban settings and serve a vital purpose by enabling people to get where they are going.

Indeed, maps are often conveniently found even inside larger building complexes, and on individual floors, to help visitors navigate to their office, shop and restaurant destinations.

Food order uncertainty mitigation

Everyone knows about the plastic food replicas displayed outside many Japanese restaurants and their close cousin, food photos in menus. They are so ubiquitous, in fact, that their daily life-enhancing value may be underappreciated.

A world without food replicas and photos is a world of culinary uncertainty. A world with food replicas and photos is a world with fewer ordering mistakes and greater diner satisfaction. (Another restaurant HSK, at least at famiresu (family restaurants): a cylindrical plastic holder for placing the check so the customer can easily find it.)

Making change, error-free

If you pay for products or services at most stores using a ¥10,000 bill, the cashier will follow a carefully choreographed process of announcing the receipt of the note so that a co-worker can witness as the cashier meticulously makes change. Undeniably this process results in fewer mistakes when dealing with change and fewer disagreements with customers about whether change was accurately given.

Having a cashier use a co-worker to witness large-denomination currency transactions is not limited to Japan, but the sheer consistency with which it is done here — a tribute to employee training — makes all the difference.

Litter-abating receipt receptacles

Speaking of shopping, isn’t it nice (and a genuine, if small, quality of life advance) that so many convenience and other stores place small receptacles in front of the cash register for shoppers to discard their receipts?

Maybe I’m mistaken, but I don’t recall seeing this little kindness anywhere until a few years ago, and now it seem to be almost everywhere.

Win-win street-corner marketing

For a business, there’s no better place to advertise your services than on a crowded city street. But how do you get the passing throngs to pay attention without giving offense? Tissue packs!

By coupling your advertisement with something useful, passers-by are more likely to accept your solicitation (and may even make a slight detour from their path to get to you); they will also see your ad every time they reach for a tissue.

This marketing technique has the added value of allowing businesses to keep their “social accounts” in balance by giving potential customers something of value in return for their implicit agreement to read (or at least glance at) the advertisement. Everyone wins. (It need not be tissue packs, of course; paper hand fans with printed advertisements handed out in the summer and mirrors at train stations that advertise a business serve a similar function.)

Parent’s helper 5 p.m. bell

Dinner time is approaching, so it’s time for the kids to come home. Even if you tell them in the morning, they may forget. You can call them, but it’s troublesome and your children will think you a nag.

No problem. At 5 p.m. on the dot (or at another scheduled time in some locales), the public address systems in most cities and towns will play a little tune to announce the time and effectively tell your kids that it’s time to head home.

While the 5 p.m. bell (goji no chaimu) also serves to test the government’s emergency public address system, perhaps its most important function today is as a mother’s (or father’s) helper to tell children — or at least those children who don’t attend evening cram school — to scoot home


Not all of these HSK are exclusive to Japan, of course. But Japanese do seem to be exceptionally good at cleverly improving upon and disseminating these innovations throughout society. From where does this “kaizen compulsive behavior” spring?

Perhaps some if it emerges from an acute Japanese sensitivity to embarrassment and an aversion to unpredictability. It surely arises in part from a perfectionist streak. A “clean freak” mentality probably helps too. Wherever Japan’s kaizen compulsion comes from, it should be embraced.

In his best-selling book, “Otaku de Onnanoko na Kuni no Monozukuri” (English title: “Geeky-Girly Innovation: A Japanese Subculturalist’s Guide to Technology and Design”), management consultant and subculture expert Morinosuke Kawaguchi makes the case that Japan should treat its “otaku” and “girly” traits (including some of the characteristics mentioned in this article) as cultural assets that can be deployed to design consumer products with broad international appeal. Japanese can develop other international commercial opportunities from their kaizen compulsion as well, such as urban planning, consulting to governments and consumer businesses, and exporting consumer service-oriented businesses.

Some of this is already being done, of course, but, with the inexorable decline in manufacturing, Japanese can do more to energize their economy, and raise the quality of life of people globally, by taking fuller advantage of their cultural and cognitive inventory, including the Japanese genius for human-scale kaizen.

Glenn Newman (gnewman@newmanlaw.net) is an attorney and former long-term resident of — and frequent business traveler to — Japan. Send your comments on these issues and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Enteringsandman

    Agree with most of these, but in Europe public bins are ubiquitous, negating the need for konbini ones!

  • Joe Ninety

    Japanese customer-service orientation ? Yeah, just fill in these three forms with information about you that we already have on file. Again.

    • Ron NJ

      But, you see, it is a rule…

  • DA

    I also agree with these things but would like to mention that in Sweden pretty much all public restrooms have a green/red bar indicating occupancy. And not only public restrooms, actually; a lot of people have that in their homes as well!

  • Muralidharan

    Most of the things that are mentioned are practised in other parts of the world.

  • Joe Ninety

    Or we could evangelise NTT docomo’s “take a number and wait for a couple of hours” system. Turning livid’s always more pleasant when you’ve company – and all in strictly-marshalled sequence, too !

    • Masa Chekov

      I don’t understand your comment – how else exactly would you rather a store operate? You get there, take a number for the appropriate desk, first come first served.

      If it’s “wait a couple of hours” then go to a different store or come back when it’s less crowded!

  • Cheryl

    Today I noticed a separate bag tied to a small fence next to a PET bottle recycling receptacle that was full of the caps from the bottles. Had to do a double take. Hadn’t seen this before.

  • Jack

    The world needs the Japanese food service model. “I’d like an extra egg on my breakfast plate”. “Sorry, sir. You can’t order that. It’s not on the menu”. And hold the bread. Between your knees.