The Japanese just seem to have way of looking at things from a different angle, which has had a big impact on Toyota’s thinking as their production system came to life.  An interesting example of this is the concept of kintsugi, or kintsukuroi.  It means something like ‘the art of the golden repair’.  The person fixing the broken piece does the opposite of trying to restore it to original condition – he laces the resin with gold or silver particles and actually highlights the break; and by using the precious metals renders the object more valuable for having been broken.

KintsukuroiThink about this in terms of lean, and in terms of our culture.  Not only does the kid (or husband) who breaks mom’s favorite dish try to fix it in a manner that makes the break impossible to find before she finds out, but we run factories by the same thinking.  When there is a problem we do whatever we can to fix it – make up for the damage done as quickly as possible so that when and if the problem becomes known to the boss we can tell him it’s been taken care of with no harm done.  We do that, of course, because both moms and bosses have a reputation for raining their wrath down upon the person responsible for the break.

Kintsugi actually celebrates problems; and the idea of using the break as an opportunity to increase the value of the thing that was broken is remarkable … and powerful.  In lean terms it is at the essence of kaizen – continuous improvement.  We can’t fix something – a process – if we have people going to great lengths to hide the fact that it is broken.  We can only get better when we encourage people to bring problems to light.  And done when right, a kaizen event doesn’t just mend broken processes – it revamps it and leaves it better for having been fixed.  And, if we are smart and honest, we make public and celebrate the work.  It is kintsukuroi thinking at its finest.