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Monozukuri Through Hitozukuri

by Michael Ballé
March 19, 2014

Monozukuri Through Hitozukuri

by Michael Ballé
March 19, 2014 | Comments (10)

What? More Japanese terms? Aren’t kaizen and gemba and so on enough already?

Time and time again, people ask me an easy way to Lean. They want something different, but not too different, just as people fancy innovation but can’t stand innovators. They want a roadmap, a plan that fits what they already know without having to explore barbarous terms and concepts.

I should know, I was the same. Twenty years ago I first studied how Toyota engineers helped one of their suppliers with a headlight cell. The Toyota engineers wanted to increase the number of change-overs to reduce the batch size, the supplier engineers couldn’t mobilize the change-over specialists to devote so much time to just one cell. The Toyota engineers wanted to pull on the cell every couple of hours, the supplier engineers didn’t want to devote the manpower to pick up parts so often. The Toyota engineers wanted to train the operators, the supplier engineers… you get the picture.

Yet, the work progressed. Batch size came down, tools were modified so that the operators could change them by themselves, quality issues were solved. Total cost of the part went down by about 30%. More impressively, at part renewal time, the Toyota engineers and supplier manufacturing engineers came with product design suggestions to lower the total cost of the new part by another 30% (of course, over the dead body of the supplier’s product engineers, same old, same old).

I wanted the roadmap. I looked for ready-made answers. I could see the step-by-step improvements. I could see the radical changes in the cell as well as the resistance from the site. They always seemed to know what they were doing. So I asked again and again for the roadmap. I thought they didn’t want to share it for proprietary reasons. "Don’t worry, I told them, it’s just for my research – I won’t publish it. Scout’s honor!" But they kept saying, “We don’t have a roadmap!”

Then, one day, the top engineer told me, "We don’t have a roadmap, but we do have a kind of golden rule: we make people before we make parts."

Since then, I’ve spent much of my professional life figuring this out. Over time, as you read the literature from the Toyota group (TMC and its main suppliers), you keep coming across to references to Monozukuri through Hitozukuri: 

  • Monozukuri is making products, something akin to artisanship but without the fanciful elements to it. Something about making the right product for the right customer (no frills) and making it the right way, which is with the most frugal work process possible, the closest to 100% value-added.
  • Hitozukuri is making people in the sense of constantly developing technical skills and the ability to solve problems with others in an atmosphere of mutual trust. Much of the literature from Toyota suppliers insists on the second part: there has to be confidence in order to hone skills. They put forward the many initiatives they have to develop self-confidence and confidence in management with the same vigor as we debate the financial savings of lean programs. 

To me, Lean is about fighting big company disease by bringing the CEO to the gemba to get closer to Monozukuri and Hitozukuri. The lean tools and principles are essential to highlight product/production issues and skills/trust issues that need to be addressed. When we use the lean tools to fix this organization or optimize that process, we simply miss the point.

It’s not easy. Companies have been designed to optimize their costs through functional systems and programs. The quality system is there to keep the cost of non quality (what is that anyway?) down, the purchasing system is there to keep the cost of supplying down and so on. None of this has much to do with making the right products the right way for our customers and developing technical competences in a spirit of respect and teamwork on the other.

"Monozukuri through Hitozukuri" remains something of a compass. At the end of yet another discussion of where do should take the company in today’s turbulent markets, yet another political battle with so-and-so that has another hyper-solution to sell (all your problems solved in one feel swoop) or is inflamed because someone stepped on their turf, I asked myself: how far are we from “making products by making people” and how do we get back to that, on the gemba, step by step? In this sense, I see Lean as an on-going meditation in what, really, is Monozukuri in this context? And what does Hitozukuri mean right here and now?

Twenty years down the line, I find myself fighting the same fight over and over again as executives want to transform their organizations to make them leaner. They want to have a program, to redesign value streams, to workshop all waste away. I tell them you can’t. You first have to transform yourself by going to the gemba and figuring out what “right product with right production” and “developing people in an atmosphere of mutual trust” mean to you in your context.

Monozukuri, Hitozukuri – the ticket price to “get” Lean is finding out about two more Japanese words. Do you think it’s worth the effort?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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10 Comments | Post a Comment
Alice Lee March 19, 2014
6 People AGREE with this comment
Michael, I first heard this concept in 2008 when I visited Toyota in Japan - making good people before one is able to make good products. It was simple and obvious (once I heard it!) yet revelatory. It honed my thinking further and I came back to my organization to start practicing this thinking through creation of an executive leader lean study course. It was a turning point for my thinking and I am grateful to that Toyota executive who shared his thinking with me.

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Ken Hunt March 19, 2014
7 People AGREE with this comment

Absolutely it's worth it. In my opinion, those that shy away from the Japanese terms because it might "confuse people" are missing a great learning opportunity, not to mention that they are shying away from the very essence of TPS. People should embrace and teach these terms.

 More than one of my Shingijutsu Senseis have said to me "If the students did not learn, the teacher did not teach".

Thanks for another well written and informative post.


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Tamlin Ferguson March 19, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Loved it.... and I would suggest to anyone wishing to gain greater understanding for this approach, that they read "Toyota Kata" by Mike Rother.

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Michael Ballé March 19, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment

Hi guys, thanks fo the comment. I find the japanese terms important because of the nuances that come with them. I was at the gemba today and we looked at two things:

- a new product that had elements that pleased the designer but we couldn't see how the custoer would want this - a meditation on monozukuri

- a debate on the difficulty of conducting kaizen with people low on self-confidence or confidence in senior management - the other side of hitozukuri.

Certainly, I feel we seldom start witht eh question of "how are we developping mutual trust?" when we think about lean, but maybe we should at that!

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Martine Thomas April 03, 2014
By the time you wanted to be convinced I suppose. I can tell you that my top managers will not even see the point with their practices. Its great but nobody can beleive it unless ... unless what ? What is the missing link ? mt

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Michael Ballé April 04, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply
I see where you're coming from. I suspect lean techniques work for managers who already share the core values of lean, and find in lean how to make them happen in practice. Kanban at Toyota was invented because the founder had core values of customer obsession, cooperation, and just-in-time frugality. He did not quite how to make it work until one of his engineers, Taichi Ohno came up with kanban. The values come first.

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ho fong lee May 04, 2014

Hi Guys,

Great comments. Shall we keep in touch? My email is on24pa@gmail.com. Am from SEA. Many thanks.

Kind regards,

Ho fong lee

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Mark Welch January 14, 2015

Very good article, but my experience with using the Japanese terms is very different.  I've spent 13 years in manufacturing and 9 years in healthcare and about 5 years ago I began to drop them because a significant portion of the people I worked with saw them as gimmickery.  It only detracted from my credibility and further alienated those who were suspicious of Lean in the first place.  For me, it's best to just speak the language of the people I work with.

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fazli April 14, 2015

It becomes gimmickery when there is no evidence of its benefits. Provide examplary practices and results, build the trust, keep building the trust and the interest would follow through.

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Jon Miller June 23, 2017

Chew on this...

“The impression has somehow got around that Henry Ford is in the automobile business. It isn’t true. Mr Ford shoots about 1,500 cars out the back door of his factory every day just to get rid of them. They are the byproducts of his real business, which is the making of men.”

Rev. Samuel Marquis, Ford employee relations officer

Ca. 1915

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