Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Elsje Fourie, researcher at Fasos, would like to do fieldwork in one of the many Ethiopian businesses that are currently so taken in by the Japanese business philosophy of Kaizen. What does that entail?
How can you quickly achieve industrialisation and economic growth? To answer this question, many African countries look to the east. To Japan, which has grown explosively since the seventies, to China, which has been booming since the eighties, but also to the four Asian dragons: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.
One hundred years ago, Ethiopia was already inspired by Japan, says researcher Elsje Fourie, who is from South Africa. “The so-called Kaizen philosophy, in which a country could be rapidly modernised, was especially appealing. This theory became known in the eighties through Toyota and Western car manufacturers also experimented with it.”
It is a business philosophy that both keeps labourers in their place and emancipates them, says Fourie. “It is all about efficiency, but at the same time the labourers' views are taken seriously. Many changes on the workfloor don't come from above but from below. Every working day starts with a team meeting, in which all can have their say.”
Today, Ethiopia is the country with the largest number of experiments in this field; it is even part of government policies. Consultants are being trained in Japan, who then put the management philosophy into practice in Africa. “I would like to do fieldwork in such an Ethiopian business. How are those Japanese instructions delivered, how are they received by the Africans? Is there room for social aspects or is it all about economic growth? I personally think the latter.”
She would also like to go to Japan to sit in on the training of consultants. What parts of the philosophy are emphasised? What are the preliminary results? Does it work? What are the advantages for Japan? “I think it is a strategy to promote the country in Africa. At the moment, Japan is overshadowed by China. There are hardly any Japanese businesses that invest in Ethiopia, also because they are risk-averse. So this could lower the threshold for this transition. Last but not least, the export of Kaizen is a serious attempt by Japan to improve social equality.”
One could see the export of management techniques as a modern form of development aid, says Fourie. “The time of humanitarian aid, like the West has provided for a long time, is no longer. It is now all about economic growth, about new infrastructure, roads, and buildings. Or ‘doing business for the good of Africa’. The Netherlands also participates in this: establishing businesses in Africa and at the same time providing access roads or building a school for the labourers' children.”
An important question is still: what about the original aim of development aid, which was improving human development, of the freedom and opportunities of people? Will that aim be achieved through economic partnerships, or will that fall by the wayside? ”
Let's briefly go back to the eighties: does Kaizen work in Western car businesses? No, not really. “Specific ideas were adopted, such as the so-called just-in-time management approach. So, don't keep stocks, but only jump into action when there is an order. All in all, there was a lot of trouble with the unions, who felt that the ‘team spirit’ was a poor reflection of true solidarity.
In this series scientists talk about the research they would really like to carry out