“Karakuri” is a Japanese word that translates to “mechanism” or “machinery.” It involves the use of mechanical devices or gadgetry to accomplish a task, rather than relying on hydraulic, pneumatic, or electric devices. The concept was developed years before computers and electrical motors were invented, so for a long time, Karakuri was an integral method to mechanically automating and improving processes within manufacturing.

Karakuri originated in Japan with the creation of mechanical dolls, called “Karakuri Ningyo,” that carried tea, danced, and were used in theaters or festivals. These dolls are widely regarded as the precursor to robots. Karakuri can be used in other contexts, such as creating foldable weapons and constructing buildings that have hiding places or hidden floors. There are even Karakuri umbrellas and furniture. 

In Lean manufacturing, Karakuri is most commonly applied through the use of mechanical gadgets that improve conveyance systems and production processes. Generally, “Karakuri Kaizen” is a mechanical device that improves work. Like other Lean methods, it can be implemented to increase efficiency or reduce waste (such as a machine that automatically stops itself after the task is complete).

Core principles and benefits to implementing Karakuri include:

  • Easier maintenance. The maintenance of Karakuri is often much easier than other types of devices. When something goes wrong, workers have an easier time seeing what the problem is and typically can fix the issue themselves, rather than calling a mechanic, electrician, or other professional. Waiting for devices to be fixed can cause a delay in production; Karakuri helps reduce lost time.
  • Improved safety. Implementing Karakuri allows a process to improve without risking the safety of employees. Mechanical devices don’t pose as many hazards as electrical or hydraulic machines, resulting in less lost work days due to injuries. Karakuri can also help reduce human error within the production process.
  • Cost-effective materials. Mechanical systems typically are much cheaper than computerized systems. They also require less time to develop, don’t take as much energy to operate, and are built using less expensive materials.
  • Easy improvement for the long term. Because Karakuri is easier to maintain, workers are often able to take care of problems and improve the process themselves. This makes room for small changes that lead in the long term to continuous improvement.

Whether you would like to make your process safer, need to implement a more cost-effective solution, or would like to incorporate a strategy that more directly involves the skills and knowledge of your employees, Karakuri is a Lean methodology that has proved successful for centuries. If you’re struggling to achieve improvement, Karakuri Kaizen is an excellent strategy to turn to.


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