Karakuri Kaizen:

karakuri doll tea

As the readers of my blog know, I am an ardent student of Toyota Production System (TPS). One of the core philosophies of TPS is kaizen, often translated from Japanese as continuous improvement. It is the idea that one should continuously find ways to eliminate non-value adding activities, and in the process develop oneself and others to get better at kaizen. The idea of kaizen begetting more kaizen. Kaizen is a human capital enrichment philosophy. As Eiji Toyoda, Toyota Motor Corporation President from 1967 to 1982, said – “It is people that make things, and so people must be developed before work can start.

One of the ways Toyota inspire their employees to nurture their creativity is Karakuri Kaizen. It is said that in the early seventeenth century, during the Edo period, European clocks were introduced in Japan. This sparked a wide curiosity amongst the Japanese craftsmen. The idea of developing motion mechanisms with elaborate sets of springs and gears was new to them. This led to the development of karakuri ningyō, or mechanized dolls. These were dolls that moved around and did several tasks such as bring tea to a guest and then bring it back to the owner, or climb a set of stairs. There was even a magician doll that performed a cups and balls routine.

What set the karakuri dolls of Japan separate from the European clockwork mechanism was the humanization of the dolls. The dolls were created with high importance to its physical features such as face, movement of head and limbs; in an effort to the make the doll life-like. Aesthetics was of utmost importance. All the mechanisms were cleverly hidden beneath clothing such that no mechanism was visible from outside. The doll moved around as if it is alive. The karakuri dolls brought fascinated delight to its spectators.

All the motion was achieved using simple springs, gravity and gears. No external power source was used. How does this all relate to the manufacturing floor? One of the challenges that is often posed to an organization is to increase its production. This is often tackled by either hiring more employees or by using automation. Automation is highly attractive even though it is sometimes cost prohibitive. It might make sense that the nonvalue added activities such as transportation and repeated motions could be replaced with a robot. Most modern manufacturing operations are riddled with automation. However, this comes with its own problems. The main one is that the automation becomes the focus of manufacturing rather than the employees. The high cost, large equipment becomes a monument that everything has to work around the monument. It is an expensive way to ensure that the status quo is maintained. To get the most out of the high expense, the new machine is run around the clock increasing the unwanted inventory and it raises the cost of the operation.

This is where karakuri kaizen comes in. Karakuri, as explained before, is a low-cost automation that does not utilize external power resources. It is comparatively small and works solely based on gravity, counterweights, springs, gears etc. The key point of karakuri kaizen is that it should inspire more kaizen. Generally, a challenge is posed to the operators to come up with a means to remove unwanted strain and motion, and to eliminate waste. Normally, this would be task where a heavy part(s) is lifted and moved to another location or where a part is turned around and operated on. The first impulse is to automate the process. This would require an expensive piece of equipment. Karakuri kaizen focuses on solving the problem on hand with what is readily available and using minimal resources. This might be construed as pushing to minimize capital expenditure. However, the most important part is that the operators are being challenge to use their wit and brains. As Fujio Cho, Toyota Motor Corporation President from 1999 to 2005, said – “Human ingenuity has no bounds.” The karakuri mechanism does not become the center of focus. Instead, the operator does. The mechanism generally is such that it can easily be modified if needed, and even replaced with another karakuri. Unlike, a heavy piece of machinery, a karakuri does not become a monument. It is built specifically to achieve a purpose, and thus it is highly customized. It is also designed in-house. The “challenge” portion is a core ingredient for kaizen.

When Toyota started car manufacturing, it did not have a lot of capital or resources. They modified existing machinery to achieve its needs. They first used what they had in-house before going outside for solutions. They relied on their employees to come up with ingenious solutions to their problems. This meant that the solutions were made specifically for their problems. Generally, when an equipment or a software is purchased, it is not always made specific to the need of the customer. The customer often has to work with what was offered. Toyota had to come up with ingenious solutions to solve their problems without spending much capital. The only capital they would come up with was human capital. Even after Toyota became successful, this mindset was maintained.

As Toyota veteran Kazuhiko Furui explained:

Toyota has tried to use as little external power as possible in its car manufacturing since its foundation. Karakuri kaizen is one of the Toyota Way values. Karakuri is a mechanism that uses gravity, springs and gears instead of external power sources to manipulate objects. A karakuri does not always work well on the first try. If something breaks, we rebuild it, trying continuously to make it better, always reforming the mechanism. For us, when we succeed, there is a great sense of achievement: “we did it!” And that brings a drive to try making yet another mechanism. Developing karakuri is also about developing people. 

Final Words:

What is the point of kaizen? The simple answer is often to make things better. If kaizen does not beget more kaizen and if it does not improve the thinking of the persons involved, then it is missing the meaning of kaizen. Kaizen should lead the employees to develop their abilities to see and identify waste, and come up with ways to eliminate waste. It should lead them to second order thinking where they don’t just what is my goal, but also ask what is the purpose of my goal. This means that the employee becomes part of the meta-system rather than just doing what they are told.

I will finish with some fine words from the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant:

The human being can either be merely trained, broken in, mechanically instructed, or really enlightened. One trains dogs and horses, and one can also train human beings. Training, however, does little; what matters above all is that they learn to think. The aim should be the principles from which all actions spring.

In case you missed it, my last post was Weber’s Law at the Gemba:


Kant and Respect for Humanity:


In today’s post, I will be looking at the concept of Respect of Humanity from a “Kantian philosophy standpoint”. “Respect for Humanity” is one of the two pillars of the “Toyota Way”. Yoshio Ishizaka defined Toyota Way as – Toyota’s implicit knowledge put in statutory form in 2001 [1]. I have written about Respect for People many times in this blog before [2].

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) is a giant in modern philosophy. Kant wrote about the Categorical Imperative in his 1785 book, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals [3]. Kant defined the Categorical Imperative as a universal moral law or principle that must be followed at all times, no matter what the circumstance or what our natural inclinations or desires are. Our focus is on Kant’s second formulation of the Categorical Imperative;

Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means.’’

Kant viewed humans as rational beings and accordingly rational beings cannot be treated merely (solely) as a means to ends, but as ends themselves.  A rational person will not subject himself to be treated as a mere means to an end, thus it is only rational to treat others the same way, in a universal manner. This thinking is applicable to oneself as well. One of the examples that Kant gave to explain this concept, is of a man who does not try to develop his natural talent. The man in the example is content with where he is, and in Kant’s eyes this means that the man is not respecting himself. Kant said, it is not enough that the action does not conflict with humanity in our person as end in itself; it must also harmonize with it (humanity).

Kant used the term “menschlichkeit”, a German word to explain his ideas regarding humanity. He viewed humanity as possessing a “rational nature” [3]. Humanity, through which we have the rational capacities to set ends, use means to them, and organize them into a whole. And as a rational being, at the heart of this is the capacity for autonomy or the ability to self-govern. The word “autonomy” from Greek means autos = self, nomos = law. This ability for self-governing, morally forces us to view each other with respect.

The concept of Respect for People does not begin or end with “being nice” to others. From a Kantian standpoint, respect is about morality. Morality is not about consequences – what others would think about me, but about intentions – it is rational to be respectful to others. Kant does not have a problem with using a person as a means to an end. For example, when an operator comes to work, he is being used to produce a product (means to an end). Kant’s problem is when a person is used as a “mere means” to an end. If the operator is seen only as a pair of hands, and if his or her input is not valued, then he or she is being used as a “mere means”. This adds a dimensionality to the relationship with the operator. It goes both ways, from the manager to the operator and the operator to the manager. The operator in turn should not view the job as a mere paycheck.

From a Kantian perspective, Respect for People means to ensure that everybody is capable of being valuable. There are opportunities for development of talent, and in Kant’s words, a chance to harmonize with humanity. How does one increase the worth of an employee? You can increase their worth by developing the employee to understand the value in his work. You can increase their worth by training him to look for gaps between the ideal state and the current state. By understanding this gap, you can further develop him to take countermeasures and corrective actions to move closer to the ideal state. Ideally, the employee would now be able to train the employees underneath him. The employee is now at a stage to be making decisions and implementing improvements on his own. In other words, he is empowered.

Final Words:

Kant was ahead of his time with his thinking. Kant spent his entire life in his hometown (Königsberg, the then capital of Prussia), and is said to have never set his foot outside a 100 mile radius from his house. Most of his famous works came later in his life. He famously said that David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, woke him up from his dogmatic slumber.  As I was reading upon Kant as part of my personal journey through philosophy, I came upon his Categorical Imperative and it struck me how much the second formulation aligned itself well with the Respect of Humanity theme of the Toyota Way.

There are many play-on-words with Kant’s name. One of my favorite memes is below:


I will finish with an anecdote about Kant.

Kant was a firm believer in rules. He had set a rule for himself to not smoke more than one pipe a day. Smoking was Kant’s time to think and reflect. As time went on, Kant wanted to spend more time smoking. However, he did not want to break his own rule. His way out was to get a larger pipe. It is said that as time went on, the size of the bowls of his pipes grew in size considerably.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Process Validation and the Problem of Induction:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Toyota-Way-Sales-Marketing/dp/1926537084/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1494183905&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Toyota+Way+in+Sales+and+Marketing

[2] https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/?s=respect+for+people

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Groundwork-Metaphysics-Morals-Immanuel-Kant/dp/0300094868