Mukesh Bector: Japanese Businesses have been Leading on Sustainability for Years

Modern Japan is international, open and adaptive. But there’s an interesting dichotomy in Japanese culture and business. As much as it embraces modernity, it combines this with long-held traditions.

This is reflected in the Monozukuri principle, translated as, ‘the art and science of manufacturing.’ It’s been at the heart of customary Japanese craftsmanship for centuries and often acts as a guiding light for modern techniques – combining high-tech and traditional notions in one simple philosophy. 

The term itself is made up of two Japanese words ‘mono’ and ‘zukuri’. Mono is the thing that is made and Zukuri means the act of making. Monozukuri focuses not only on the tools of continuous improvement, but on the corresponding culture as well.  

The concept historically refers to a work ethic based on deep knowledge, multiple skills and a lot of passion. It is accompanied by a strong ambition to achieve perfection, an aspiration that is highly recognised in Japanese society. There is also the notion of pride in achievement, a sense of responsibility and a deep respect for the materials used.

With a focus on a long-term vision rather than short-term results, Japanese businesses are pushing for sustainable growth, while adhering to age-old principles of craftsmanship and contributing to society. 

Monozukuri and Sustainable Manufacturing

We live in an era where the attitudes of businesses to social and environmental issues, from global warming to plastic pollution and human rights, are being strongly tested. Initiatives for environmental and social sustainability as well as contribution to Environmental Societal Governance (ESG) are now expected of all businesses.

When it comes to manufacturing, the concept of Monozukuri dictates that great care should be taken when using resources so as not to be wasteful or frivolous. It should be in harmony with nature and should be of value to society. 

It is often stated that Monozukuri stands on three pillars, each existing to achieve the least costly, most sustainable processes, whilst accelerating continuous improvement. For businesses, this translates to three key areas. Firstly, product and development. This refers to the design phase, during which it is imperative to keep resources and costs to a minimum by standardising processes and optimising transparency and teamwork. The followed by production, in which the aim is to eliminate as much waste as possible by optimising the production flow. Finally, the supply chain. Again, the objective is to reduce the overall impact and cost associated with supply chain activities. 

By adopting the concept of Monozukuri, businesses can focus on removing waste and streamlining processes to secure sustainable cost reduction, whilst re-investing profit and effort into employees, society, and the planet. This holistic approach not only results in a positive impact on the business and its customers, but ensures sustainable growth.

A number of Japanese businesses, such as Epson, are examples of this. Epson’s core values revolve around having a sense of duty to contribute to the development and the welfare of society at large, delivering innovative products that reflect the needs of customers today. 

This is reflected by the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) Platinum status for Responsible Manufacturing granted to the company’s Philippines factory in November 2022. 

The RBA is the world’s largest industry coalition dedicated to corporate social responsibility in global supply chains and is committed to supporting the rights and wellbeing of workers and communities worldwide. The coalition recognises factories and sites across the world that achieve the highest standards of corporate social responsibility in their production processes and focuses on fair working conditions, human rights and sustainability.

There are a lot of lessons that we can learn from Japan and its way of managing business. Innovative new technology isn’t the only road to success, traditional methods that have stood the test of time can also be applied and critically, harmony with our environment and those around us is essential. 

Focus on the Customer

While it is important to have a vision, whether as individuals or as a business, that vision needs to be one that is realistic and one that meets the needs of those around us. Putting the customer first is an essential part of Monozukuri, in which Japanese companies think about the long-term perspective and what the customer might want, as well as what is needed within the industry. This in turn provides the best quality products and levels of service that win customer trust. 

Quality Over Quantity

In Japan, great importance is placed on the selection of materials and it is believed that a product should be made to last. Monozukuri takes into account everything from the materials used to the manufacturing process, and has several fundamental principles that make it different from other forms of production. 

To begin with, continuous improvement is sought in all work processes. Everything a business does should be centred on a greater goal and taking a single-minded approach that generates ongoing improvements to allow it to achieve that goal. Even when challenges present themselves, having this mind-set encourages a business to keep going even when others might give up.

Essentially, the ultimate goal is to achieve a product of the highest quality that has been created in the most efficient way, which generates original value and really makes a difference to people’s lives – all without negatively impacting the environment around us.

Life-Long Learning

Monozukuri encourages employees to ‘bring their mind to work’. They are fully empowered and trained to deal with different situations to create an elevated sense of ownership. It is about making products as well as about instilling pride and passion in their jobs. It requires creative minds and often relates back to craftsmanship that can be learned through apprenticeships.

Since it is people who manufacture things, manufacturing is impossible unless people are supported to enable it. This is where the concept of Hitozukuri, an organisation’s commitment to the lifelong development of the skills and knowledge of all employees, comes in. It is a continuous process that enables people to mature along with their work to achieve success in their fields and skills. 

Epson, for example, has a dedicated programme in Japan that considers the first year of employment to be a training period during which new employees learn about its approach to work. New employees will gather for group training, where they learn the mindset and attitude necessary for practicing Monozukuri, which is the foundation of Epson’s efficient, compact and precision technologies.

In a world where innovation is a consistent buzzword, it’s easy to forget that some of the best ideas come from time-tested traditions. Japan has a long history of creating quality products, and there is much we can learn from the country’s approach. By applying the principles of Monozukuri, we can create products that are not only functional, efficient and reliable, but also aesthetically pleasing, timeless and – most importantly – sustainable. 

Mukesh Bector is Epson Regional Head, East, and West Africa.

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