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Lean Japan Tour – Immersed in World-Class Manufacturing

Many Australian companies have recently attempted to implement lean programs, but there are limited cases of its successful and ongoing implementation.

There are some key reasons behind this:

  • Companies have never seen a genuinely successful example to benchmark against.
  • Companies overlook the people and culture when implementing lean programs.
  • Companies miss the true essence of lean due to a flood of misinterpreted opinions and lean learning materials in the marketplace.

Lean learning in Japan – the home of lean

The Lean Japan Tour has been an annual initiative of the Australian Industry Group since 2007. It is a fully arranged opportunity to experience first-hand the world-class application of lean thinking at some of Japan’s key manufacturers. Generous time is allocated for open-topic discussions with managers of these companies, allowing participants to uncover how the Japanese have approached sustained productivity improvement efforts successfully over many years.

The tour is led by Shinka Management in association with Japan Management Association Consultants (JMAC), Japan’s oldest management consulting firm. With its clients, JMAC has been developing many of the famous tools of ‘lean thinking’ for almost 70 years. These are not new concepts for JMAC, and the company has accumulated a lot of know-how in the successful application of lean thinking across all departments of companies and industry sectors.

Past tours have included visits to companies such as Toyota, Panasonic, Rinnai, Sekisui Heim and Kewpie Mayonnaise. The shop floor tours give a comprehensive operator-level look at the factory operations.

Genuine Understanding

The tour will enlighten each participant’s comprehension of lean. They will come to learn the original Japanese thinking behind the concept and its true application across a range of companies today. Shinka Management lean consultants and interpreters will guide them through the concepts and culture behind the manufacturing success story that is Japan. Previous participant companies have come from food, beverage, steel, construction, metal fabrication, lighting, automotive, plastics and other sectors. They all returned reinvigorated and equipped with fresh ideas. Participants gained a better understanding of the application of lean concepts to their organisations, and how Japan, with a similar manufacturing cost structure to Australia, is approaching the challenge of increased competition from the likes of China, India, Thailand and Vietnam.

The tour group is immersed into Japanese culture for the week. Past participants have also used the opportunity to research the different marketing of their similar products in stores, understand what the Japanese retail environment looks and feels like, understand the domestic and international competition for their products, and experience the quality levels of product and service that Japanese consumers demand.

Whether participants are new to the concept of lean, or they are searching for that next level of achievement, everyone will come home with a better understanding of how lean can be achieved. There is no substitute for taking the opportunity to visit relevant like-manufacturers and learn from their experience.

2011 Tour Summary

Day 1 – JMAC Seminar (TOKYO)
Lean Implementation in Japan

Japan Management Association ConsultantsAn experienced Senior Consultant from JMAC’s Production Division conducted a presentation focusing on lean implementation in Japan and the direction of manufacturing in Japan. The session invited open discussion and involvement from all participants.

Considering the story of lean from a Japanese perspective threw new light on the true motive behind companies applying lean thinking in the first place and some of the critical aspects that generally do not receive much attention in the West.

Day 2 & 3 – Gifu Body (GIFU)
5S, TPM and Visual Management Tools

Gifu Body is one of eight suppliers of finished vehicles to the Toyota Group and recognised as a top-quality Toyota supplier. Their major product is the Toyota Hi-Ace vehicle, but they also manufacture emergency vehicles based on the Hi-Ace design, along with automotive components.

The tour group visited four separate factories on this visit; the welding/paint/assembly factory, the pressed components factory, the seat track factory, and one small external supplier.

Gifu Body has a clever use of space throughout the plant. This has been required over the years due to the expansion of operations within building size limitations. The life of older equipment has been extended considerably through excellent 5S and TPM programs. Highlighted are simple but effective visual management tools, automated guided vehicles (AGV) and specific examples of inexpensive improvement ideas that have had a considerable effect on productivity.

Day 4 – Toyota (AICHI)
Toyota Production System, Jidoka and Just-In-Time

Japan Lean Manufacturing Tour - ToyotaA tour of the Motomachi plant, one of the nine Toyota plants in Toyota City, was conducted by Toyota personnel. Facilities are set up inside the plant to give visitors a clear view of the operations and a true feeling of the shop floor atmosphere. Interactive training areas are also available to provide an indication of the extent and emphasis Toyota places on training its people.

The tour incorporated content on the two pillars of the Toyota Production System (TPS); Jidoka and Just-In-Time. TPS tools were explained through video and, where possible, actual shop floor examples of the tools at work. Supported by these pillars, TPS aims to offer high quality, short delivery times, and reasonable cost through employee creativity and intense efforts to eliminate waste. It is designed so that machines and people alike stop production when there is equipment failure, or any other irregularity, in order for it to be immediately corrected. Also, it improves productivity without waste by manufacturing and delivering the necessary parts at the necessary time in the necessary quantity.

The second half of the Toyota visit took the group to the Toyota Kaikan Museum. The museum, located adjacent to Toyota global headquarters, contains a showcase of Toyota’s philosophy and corporate direction.

Day 4 – Rinnai (AICHI)
JIT, Multi-Product Mixed Flow Production, Poka-Yoke

The Chairman of Rinnai, Mr Susumu Naito, spoke to the tour group directly in English about the DNA of the company that he has built over six decades since taking it over from his father. Rinnai’s mission states “quality is our destiny” epitomizing a corporate obsession with quality.

Rinnai keep production of key components in-house at four of their own factories and seven manufacturing affiliates under the Rinnai Group umbrella. The factory manager leading the tour explained that by realizing this high in-house production ratio, they have control over quality and strive for zero-defect status. All employees participate in improvement and TPM efforts. They maintain a multi-product, mixed-flow production system based on actual demand. Also, through their own logistics network, they can realise timely delivery.

Day 5 – Kewpie (AICHI)
TPM, Andon, Waste Reduction

Kewpie is a major player in the Japanese food sector, manufacturing products including mayonnaise, salad dressing and condiments. About nine per cent of all eggs produced in Japan, or 230,000 tonnes, are transformed into Kewpie products. The company has devoted itself to the challenge of pursuing the full use of eggs without any waste.

This shop floor tour gave a detailed story of how Kewpie source and store their eggs, produce and bottle their mayonnaise, and package and ship their product to maximise freshness. There were excellent usages of andon and visual management to control the production process and a TPM program to maximse equipment effectiveness.

2014 tour details

The Australian Industry Group and Shinka Management will again conduct its annual Lean Japan Tour from 18 – 24 May 2014. All expenses are included in the tour price except airfares and travel insurance. Learn more about the 2014 Lean Japan Tour, open to Australian and New Zealand companies.

This article appeared in the Australian Industry Group’s Exporters Guide 2012 – 2013.

Ben Sparrow is a Director of Shinka Management Pty Ltd, which works to help Australian Industry increase productivity through Japanese lean management practices and Japan industry study tours.

The Lean Japan Tour is open to professionals from across the world. Information on the tour can be viewed in English (Lean Japan Tour) and Turkish (Yalın Japonya Turu).

Rethinking Japan as a Key Market for Australian Industry

Since establishing formal Australia-Japan trade relations through the 1957 signing of the Agreement on Commerce, Australian exporters have enjoyed a rewarding relationship with Japan.

Australian exporters are, however, at risk of forgetting this loyal partner market as the focus shifts to rapidly developing China and its large population.

For the best part of four decades, Japan has been Australia’s most important export market, and just because there is a new player in town does not mean that Japan is any less attractive. Japan – a democratic nation – shares many common values with Australia, and, like Australia, consistently enjoys a high international ranking for lack of corruption and ease of doing business.

Japan continues to be an exciting market for Australian industry, and there are myriad opportunities to be found by those willing to tailor solutions to suit Japan’s evolving consumer and business landscape.

To understand trends in the Japanese market requires time in the country, but for those willing to make the effort to understand Japanese business and consumer preferences, this effort can pay dividends. We must be careful not to rely on static, out-of-date perceptions, and instead be willing to invest in understanding the subtle ongoing changes driving consumer and business preferences within this fascinating country.

By way of example, two themes that Japan is currently grappling with that are having a marked impact are the after-effects of the recent triple disaster in northern Honshu, and the rapidly changing demographics of Japanese society.

The disaster

We all watched in horror the scenes following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in the vicinity of Fukushima last year.

The backlash against nuclear power, the demand for cleaner energy sources and the increasing competition with China for access to resources will ensure Australia continues to play a vital role in Japan’s future energy security. This year’s announcement of the Japanese backed $33 billion Ichthys liquid natural gas (LNG) development project in the Northern Territory is only one example of the massive investments we are seeing across Australia in this area; however, we can expect continuing opportunities in the field of carbon neutral technology as well.

Japanese consumers have placed particular importance on food safety over the years, following mad cow disease, and tainted dumpling and pickle scares associated with imported products. Localised incidents of radiation-tainted domestic agricultural products have only deepened consumer concern. In response, savvy Australian farmers are targeting lucrative niche markets that cater to the Japanese consumer’s continued hunger for quality. Japanese consumers demand stringent quality control and food labelling, right down to the region of production and the time of harvest. Australian food has a competitive advantage thanks to our ‘clean water, clean air’ image and higher food safety standards than Japan’s closer neighbours. Sustainable farming practices and efforts to keep regions such as Tasmania and South Australia’s Kangaroo Island free of genetically modified crops are excellent examples that are paying dividends in terms of our trade with Japan.

An ageing, shrinking population

Japan’s society is ageing rapidly. With over 23 per cent of Japan’s population over 65 years in age, demographical changes are demanding innovation and creating new opportunities in the aged care, tourism, information technology and entertainment industries. With fewer young people to care for their ageing compatriots, and restrictive immigration policy preventing an influx of younger labour, services targeted towards this cashed-up demographic would be well received.

As Japan’s population ages it has also begun to shrink, with recent Japanese government forecasts suggesting 30 per cent fewer citizens by 2060. This is prompting Japanese industry, long buoyed by support from a strong domestic market, to look outwards for future growth opportunities.

In achieving this international growth, Japan faces a distinct challenge to globalise its workforce. Despite high domestic education standards, Japan is well behind its neighbors in terms of the number of students and young workers that have received education or work experience abroad. Poor spoken English, inability to be effective in an international environment, and the homogeneity of the Japanese workforce (Japan’s population is 98 per cent ethnic Japanese) are significant weaknesses. Australia can assist, especially in the field of education, but also through more creative means such as providing work placements for staff from partner Japanese organisations. Acquiring ‘Global Human Capital’ is often cited as a key challenge by Japanese companies, and Australia, an English-speaking long-term partner country of Japan, is well-positioned to assist with these needs.

Despite unprecedented long-term economic stagnation, many Japanese firms have a strong cash position, and in addition to expanding export markets, Japanese firms are vigorously pursuing M&A opportunities abroad in their bid to reduce their dependence on their domestic market. We have seen much evidence of this in Australia in recent years, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) reporting Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) into Australia topped $49 billion in 2010: a level three times that of China’s FDI to Australia. Whilst investment into the resources sector has already been noted, there is growing FDI activity in a diverse range of industries, including infrastructure, agribusiness, water and clean technology.

Japan deserves a second look

The aftermath of Japan’s triple disaster and the country’s rapidly changing demographics are only two such examples of change that warrant rethinking our approach to the Japanese market. Japanese consumers are willing to pay a premium for quality, and this will provide many Australian exporters with a competitive advantage, but only if they spend time in-market to understand what quality means to the Japanese.

Japan continues to be an extremely important trading partner for Australia, and the long-awaited Australia-Japan Free Trade Agreement will only deepen this relationship. Despite pressures associated with disaster recovery and domestic and international economic uncertainties, Australia-Japan trade activity remains strong, and opportunities for Australian exporters abound.

This article on Australia-Japan trade appeared in the Australian Industry Group’s Exporters Guide 2012 – 2013.

Paul Smith is a Director of Shinka Management Pty Ltd, which works in association with Japan Management Association Consultants (JMAC) to help Australian Industry increase productivity through Japanese lean management practices and Japan industry study tours. Paul is also active as Chair of the Japan Australia Business Council of SA.

Shinka Management assists Australian companies that trade with Japan through market entry support, localisation and Japanese translation and interpreting.


FOODEX JAPAN 2013 – The 38th International Food and Beverage Exhibition

Gateway to the East-Asian Dinner Table

FOODEX JAPAN is the largest food and beverage trade show in Asia. Since 1976, it has been providing the opportunity for exhibitors to promote their products to the expanding Asian markets.

In 2012, FOODEX JAPAN had almost 74,000 visitors pass through the gates over four days. Over ten per cent of visitors were from overseas, and exhibitors came from 73 countries and regions. It is held at Makuhari Messe, a facility with a total of 54,000 square meters of exhibition space, located close to Tokyo and Narita Airport.

The event presents Australian companies will the opportunity to exhibit to buyers from not only Japan, but from wider Asia, and to access the Japanese distribution system.

A gathering of Asian buyers

FOODEX JAPAN attracts the importers critical in introducing products to various retailers, stores and restaurant chefs in Japan. But, as the largest show of its type in Asia, buyers from Korea, Taiwan, China and other growing Asian countries gather. In fact, over 10,000 buyers in total attended in 2012. East-Asian countries tend to follow the Japanese food movement, and if companies and products can make it into the Japanese market, this may also become a gateway to the Asian food market. It is an excellent and effective opportunity for Australian companies to promote their products to expanding Asian markets.

Japanese distribution system

The Japanese distribution system has been a challenge for Australian companies to penetrate in years gone by, yet it is the most important factor to the Japanese food industry. However, deregulation, the globalisation of Japanese consumer preferences and initiatives such as FOODEX JAPAN have contributed towards breaking down those barriers to entry for Australian exporters. Foreign companies that have shied away from Japan in the past due to the complex distribution system may well benefit in revisiting the opportunities in Japan.

Buyers support program

FOODEX JAPAN Secretariat provides a number of programs, free of charge, to expand business opportunities and assist exhibitors to conduct fruitful discussions with buyers.

The Importer Club provides import know-how and language support, eliminating the excuse from a buyer that they ‘don’t know how to import’. Exhibitors with Japanese buyers at their booth interested in their products can make effective use of this support service to assist the buyer with the importing procedure, no matter the volume of trade.

The Export Wine! One Pallet! program supports that don’t have an importer in Japan to meet Japanese importers. It is set up to increase business negotiations between wine exhibitors and buyers from the food service industry, such as individually run restaurants and izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) that have little contact with overseas wineries, have a lack of importing experience and only require a small order size. Overseas wines not yet available in the Japanese market are showcased and Japanese buyers can visit and taste wine with the advice of Japanese wine professionals on site.

The Product Search Service arranges meetings between you and the decision-making buyers from Japan’s large retailers and distributors. Surveys of interested products are conducted in advance with Japanese buyers and importers. Along with pre-appointed meetings, buyers and importers can also visit the booth of the exhibitor for more information if a product meets their need. At FOODEX JAPAN 2012, more than 1500 business-match meetings were conducted with AEON, CGC, Saizeriya, Sundi, TFK, Tokyu Store, and more. Buyers and exhibitors discussed the possibility of sending their products to Japan.

Online library

FOODEX JAPAN TODAY is a section on the FOODEX JAPAN website that is updated monthly with the latest food trends and products in Japan. Even if you do not plan to participate in the next event, this is a useful source of information for Australian companies.

Interviews with decision-making personnel from distributors, importers and restaurants are also uploaded each month so that companies can understand what kinds of overseas products are generating interest, and what kind of information is needed for these buyers and the market.

Foodex Japan 2014

Exhibition Details

Exhibition Period: 4-7 March 2014.

Venue: Makuhari Messe, Chiba City, Japan

To learn more about how Australian exporters can take part in FOODEX JAPAN contact Shinka Management or visit


The application deadline for the FOODEX JAPAN 2014 food expo is 1 November 2013.


This article appeared in the Australian Industry Group’s Exporters Guide 2012 – 2013.

Ben Sparrow is a Director of Shinka Management Pty Ltd, which works in association with Japan Management Association Consultants (JMAC) to help Australian Industry increase productivity through Japanese lean consulting, lean six-sigma training and Japan lean study tours.