What Africa Can Learn from Japan on Productivity

Published on 24th July 2018

The ILO takes the future of work so seriously, that it deemed it necessary to establish a Global Commission on the Future of Work. The Commission is set out to undertake an in-depth examination that can provide the analytical basis, for the delivery of social justice in the 21st century.  In doing this, it will assess the transformative changes taking place in the world of work, and make recommendations on the way forward.

I have no doubt that this conference, whilst it is about how to enhance productivity, will have to locate its diagnosis and proposed solutions, taking into account the harsh realities of the future of work dynamics.  Hindsight has taught us that there is no one size fits all in real life, however, we must always cease the opportunity to share experiences and learn from one another.

Whilst we fully subscribe to the principle of finding African solutions for African problems, we strongly believe that enhancing international best practice as a product of a delicate mix of international and national imperatives, is not a mutually exclusive concept.  I take comfort, in knowing that Kaizen is both flexible and adaptable to national and international circumstances, that may be unique and peculiar in some instances.

We are indeed grateful of Japan’s commitment to share its management philosophy and productivity improvement activities, such as Kaizen, Quality Control Circle, Green Productivity with our continent.  We also take pride in being one of the ten Pan African Productivity Association member-countries. 

I am aware that South African companies and those in the African continent that have adopted the Kaizen management philosophy, have gained the capacity to develop their own systems, methods, procedures and problem-solving tools.  I am advised this has already contributed a great deal to continuous improvements at all levels, including, better work place organisation and productivity.

As I said earlier on, productivity improvements must be part of combination of many factors, and not a stand-alone initiative that fails to observe the key pillars of the decent work.  It must, as part of its construct, have contingency plans to deal with any un-intended consequences that may arise as productivity improves. To counter this possible undesirable outcome, training and retraining has to be an integral part of the system, and I am glad that Kaizen embraces this imperative.

It cannot only be about return on investment without commensurate developmental dividends, as that would not be sustainable.  The notion of trickle-down economics of years gone by, does not work.  Some of you would remember that, in the first couple of years of the South African democracy, the economy grew, but did not translate into jobs.  Some even called it a jobless growth.

The gospel of “grow the economy and the benefits will follow” did not materialize.  Having gleaned the Japanese experience of the Kaizen philosophy, my fear of it resulting in undesired outcomes, is mitigated by how the Japanese used a holistic approach in its application.

I submit that it will be in the best interest of all of us, not to cut corners when applying this philosophy, or any philosophy for that matter. If we have to customise the philosophy, without losing the essence of what it is meant to do, so be it.

I am raising these issues as food for thought for all of us.  I have no doubt that the Kaizen Practitioners will have no difficulties in advancing strategies and tools, that are required to mitigate any unintended consequences that may arise.

Trade wars are on the rise.  Multilateralism is under threat, never experience since the end of the cold war. What does it mean for our economies? This question is relevant as we engage with strategies to enhance performance of our respective productive sectors.  Flowing from the apt theme of this conference “Opportunities of Kaizen in Africa, Now and Future”, begs the question, where will the market for the high value-added goods that will come about as a result of new found productivity efficiencies, come from, given the current trade wars?

I venture to say that the market will be right here in the African continent. What gives all of us hope as Africans, is that our economies are turning the corner. According to the latest reports, out of ten of the fastest growing economies in the world, six of these are in Africa, with their GDPs growth projected at over 5% towards 2025.  So, it is indeed Africa’s turn.

Let me take this opportunity to thank The New Partnership for Africa’s Development Agency, Japan International Cooperation Agency, in partnership with Productivity South Africa under the auspices of the Pan-Africa Productivity Association, for hosting the African Kaizen Conference. Let me also extend our appreciation to all practitioners of Kaizen from the width and breadth of our African continent, Asia and Latin America.

Compatriots, those who know better say, if you want to feed a man for a day, give him a fish, but if want to feed him for life, show him how to fish.  I believe the Japanese by sharing with us the Kaizen Philosophy, they are not giving us a fish, but showing us how to fish so that we can sustain ourselves for life.

By Mildred Oliphant

Minister of Labour, Republic of South Africa.


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