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Business Insight

New Approach to Business

Yoshitaka Fujisawa

In the first of a 2-part series on Japanese firms we look at firms that employ people with disabilities, to boost their business.

Disabled workers are often assigned minor jobs that don't utilize their talents. But managers at one factory in western Japan are taking a different approach. Their disabled workers are involved in the entire production process and they're reaping big rewards.

In Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture workers take air showers to clean off impurities before entering the workspace. One of the jobs is the operation of a machine that pumps out 90 portions of cookie dough at a time. Staff will transfer them to an oven that bakes batches of 6,000 cookies. Workers churn out more than a ton of these sweet treats every day. They look like they're running a regular biscuit factory. But there's a difference.

Managers at the factory employ 50 people and divide them into 20 operations based on their type of disability. One woman says she's not great at multi-tasking. Instead she focuses on transferring freshly baked cookies to trays.

Another man is less adept at complex jobs, but good at heavy lifting. He carries heavy ingredients and makes dough.

One employee says that the work isn't easy, and they have trouble remembering everything. But they say that they're doing their best and that the people are kind and supportive.

Those in charge haven't always had such a smooth run. 30 years ago the company mostly sold cookies made elsewhere. Then Hitomi Nakazaki came on board from a private company, and started to shake things up. She felt the center needed to overhaul its approach to survive and flourish.

Nakazaki knew that the more the factory earned the more people it could hire. She made a crucial decision to produce the cookies on site, and that increased the profit margins.

Nakazaki decided that the center should use local ingredients in the dough to make the cookies taste as good as the big name brands. She also asked a designer to create packaging that would appeal to female customers. And finally she oversaw changes to the website that helped promote online services.

Managers watched sales grow to about 800 thousand dollars in 10 years. Compared with 20 years ago, they now employ more than 4 times as many people and they pay them 3 times as much per hour.

Nakazaki says they were thrilled to hit sales of 800 thousand dollars. Managers worked hard to turn the company around. They're getting the best out of their workers, and they're making a product that's competing with offerings from bigger rivals.

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