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“It is impossible to overestimate the importance of 5S,” he said.

“Really?” I asked myself.

The CEO of a major Japanese process improvement consultancy told me this in 1992, in Nagoya. What do you think? Is it that significant in driving improvement and the ‘Kaizen mind’?

I was reminded of the CEO’s statement when participating in the Africa Kaizen Annual Conference (AKAC) in Tunis, 23-27 June 2019. I was there at the request of JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency).

For me, attending the conference was the final stage of a 9-month stint serving on the Examination Committee for the Africa Kaizen Awards: nine finalists, from Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tunisia and Zambia, had been winnowed from 16 applicants.

As the final step in adjudication, counting only 10% of the final assessment, the nine finalists were required to present at AKAC. The remaining seven made poster presentations.

Four of the original six examiners made it to the event itself. (Ironically, this meant I ended up being the only African on the Examination Committee; the other three examiners in Tunis were all from Japan.) Here we are, on-stage awaiting the presentation of the awards:

JICA, an agency of the government of Japan, provides ‘development assistance’ in developing countries across the world, almost exclusively partnering with government agencies in recipient countries; for instance, in South Africa, JICA places Japanese experts with Productivity SA and the Automotive Industry Development Centre. The ‘Africa Kaizen Initiative’ was launched by JICA in 2016, gathering momentum across many African countries. 2019 is the first year for the Africa Kaizen Awards, designed to incentivize improvement activities: the top two awardees get to go to Japan in August to present at an even bigger event there!

It is those local JICA partners who put forward the companies for the award, obviously first validating the credibility of the claims made in the written award applications. Tunisia, along with Ethiopia and South Africa had two nominees each. Seven site visits (gemba walks) were available during the conference. I went to SOMEF (, a manufacturer of plugs, switches, circuit breakers, etc. for use in domestic and industrial electrical installations. In each department we saw evidence of their commitment to a productive, safe, innovative and improvement-oriented management system:

There were over 190 people at the AKAC, from 17 African countries. Argentina, where JICA’s Kaizen promotion is very active, also had representatives. There were 15 from the JICA HQ in Japan, and other Japanese agencies and universities. In addition, there were 27 more Japanese delegates, mostly experts based in countries in Africa to give direct assistance to companies. The Japanese government agency, JICA, is obviously very committed to promoting Kaizen in Africa!

Here are the award winners proudly holding their trophies:

The two going to Japan in August are front and extreme left: A to Z Textile Mills (Tanzania) and MAA Garment and Textiles (Ethiopia).

Participating in the examination process was in some ways like being in a time-warp: I was taken back to the basics: 5S, Visual Management, Quality Circles, Fishbone diagrams, 7 Wastes. Only one of the nine finalists failed to explicitly promote 5S (and the exception was one of the two weakest finalists; it failed to mention any of the basics!). Other basics: 8/9 on Visual Management, and 6/9 on Fishbones and PDCA. Five out of nine promoted Quality Circles.

This is not surprising. JICA has produced a Kaizen Handbook that promotes the basics: 5S is front and centre in the promotion of Kaizen in Africa.

“It is impossible to overestimate the importance of 5S,” he said.

“Yes, really!” I say to myself.

Norman Faull

Chairman: Lean Institute Africa

PS: Some people go to extreme lengths to capture special moments!