Does the Kaizen philosophy prevent auto problems?

Howard Boykin replaces an air hose on his 1971 Volkswagen Beetle in front of his home in Anderson, S.C.
AP Photo/Sefton Ipock

Most people have heard of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," but not everyone has a motorcycles or the time to meditate on maintaining one. However, most people do have cars, and diagnosing car trouble and other auto problems can seem as foreign to most people as Eastern philosophy. But what if there was an Eastern philosophy that could help you diagnose car problems and prevent car trouble?

Some people think there is. The word kaizen means improvement in Japanese, and the Kaizen philosophy, which focuses on continuous improvement in all areas, is the basis for some of the success of Japanese car companies. Appling some of its precepts to how you maintain your own car may help you avoid common problems.


Using an Eastern philosophy to prevent car trouble doesn't mean you should start doing yoga on the hood of your car (not that there's anything wrong with that). The Kaizen philosophy focuses on making constant improvements to quality by identifying and eliminating waste. It turns out, that's a pretty good philosophy to guide car manufacturing and maintenance, too.

Most car problems arise from poor maintenance or wear and tear. If you can identify problem areas before they actually become problems, then you've just applied Kaizen to your car -- and likely saved yourself a hefty repair bill at the same time.

Take your car's fuel filter, for example. It's a small part that can cause big problems. If it malfunctions, gunk from your fuel tank can end up in your engine, which can lead to extremely expensive and complex repairs. Even if the filter is just dirty, fuel won't flow efficiently to the engine and your car's performance will suffer. Following Kaizen means that you should check small parts, often, to ensure that everything is working just as it should. So if you replace your car's fuel filter it when it gets clogged, you're helping to maximize the quality and efficiency of your car's engine.

While you can certainly apply Kaizen philosophy to your own car and the maintenance you perform, it's most famously been applied by some car companies right at the factory. Keep reading to find out which car manufacturers follow Kaizen from the get-go.


The Kaizen Philosophy in the Auto Industry

A Toyota Motor Corp. worker kneels down to check a Lexus at the Japanese automaker's flagship production line for luxury Lexus models in Tahara, central Japan.
AP Photo/Koji Sasahara

Kaizen philosophy and the auto industry intersect in Japan in the 1950s, but it's a philosophy and management style that continues to be practiced today -- most notably by Toyota.

After World War II, Taiichi Ohno was charged with setting up machine shops for Toyota. He came to the United States to study Henry Ford's assembly lines. Ohno saw that while the Ford assembly lines worked, there was a lot of waste in the process. Some parts of the factory would have too much inventory, while others would have too little. Also, there wasn't a clean and efficient way to check for quality and the assembly line workers weren't asked to provide solutions to problems. Ohno wasn't impressed.


On the other hand, Ohno was very impressed by the American supermarkets he visited. He saw how the stores only ordered what they needed and kept their inventories low to respond to consumer demand.

Using what he saw in the States, Ohno applied the principles of Kaizen to Japanese auto manufacturing and came up with several programs, like just-in-time inventory, for example. The just-in-time system is where inventory is delivered based on what's necessary right at that moment, not what's available. Kaizen continues to reform the company's practices by charging every employee -- from the CEO to the janitor -- with continuously improving quality. Rather than waiting for problems to occur, Toyota employees are expected to continually seek improvements in efficiency and quality. If factory workers see a potential problem, they can actually stop work to find a solution, rather than letting the problem grow as production continues. As part of Kaizen, Toyota has quality circles, which are groups of workers who know how the company works, and whose job it is to find areas for improvement, either through cutting waste, changing a process or improving a product.

And, for the most part, Kaizen seems to be working for Toyota. And while it may have lost some sales due to the economic downturn, for most consumers, the Toyota name continues to be synonymous with quality and reliability. That's something that owners -- especially those that practice Kaizen car maintenance at home -- are likely to appreciate.

For more information about diagnosing car problems and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bremner, Brian and Dawson, Chester. "Can Anything Stop Toyota?" BusinessWeek. Nov. 17, 2003. (Oct. 19, 2009)
  • Liker, Jeffrey. "The 14 Principles of the Toyota Way: An Executive Summary of the Culture Behind TPS." 2004. (Oct. 19, 2009)
  • Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc. "History." (Oct. 19, 2009)