Kumon’s Humble Beginnings Take Over the World

Yesterday I started reviewing Kumon, which is celebrating 50 years of educating students across the globe. The company has humble roots but has grown to be the leading tutoring center in the world. Click here to listen to my interview with Deven Klein, VP of franchising for Kumon.

In 1954, a Japanese math teacher named Toru Kumon was concerned about his son’s performance in math. So Kumon created a series of math exercises for his son to practice at home after school. The exercises worked, and his son’s scores improved so remarkably that Kumon’s neighbors asked him to help their children with the same exercises. His base of parents grew and grew, and in 1958, he founded the Kumon Institute.

Relive Your Story Every Day

Many companies have a similar narrative. I have discovered that highly innovative companies relive their "innovation stories" over and over again. This creates a passion of purpose that in turn provides a bottom-line advantage.

Most of Kumon’s franchisees were parents whose children attended a Kumon program. These people fell in love with the company after seeing their own child’s success. Impressed with the Kumon methodology, some of these parents decide to launch their own Kumon Math and Reading Centers.

"It’s the people and the franchisees who implement our method locally in their own communities that truly make the difference," says Klein.

There are two advantages to converting clients into employees. First, these parents know the Kumon methodology, which is complex and takes years to master. But more importantly, these parents get to relive the Toru Kumon narrative: a parent helps his/her child, discovers the power of the methodology, and then takes the methodology to others.

This is a powerful motivator and keeper of the Kumon culture. As Klein says, "There are a lot of people who have tried to copy us, but they can’t replicate the conviction of our staff, our method and our franchise owners."

In my work with Wal-Mart, we discovered several such "innovation narratives" that in the past gave Wal-Mart meaningful competitive advantages. By retelling these, we saw we could keep these sources of innovation alive and encourage people to relive them.

Does your company have a narrative or innovation story? Ask yourself the following questions to reinvent your company by reliving its original mission.

  1. What is my company’s innovation story?
  2. Is there a way to use our innovation story to inspire our employees and our clients?
  3. Can we help our clients relive our story to feel more closely connected to us?


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