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Taiichi Ohno Was a Hairdresser

by Brent Wahba
March 21, 2014

Taiichi Ohno Was a Hairdresser

by Brent Wahba
March 21, 2014 | Comments (8)

Photo © Toyota Motor Corporation

There’s an interesting theory in a corner of quantum physics that states that anything that can possibly happen, no matter how whacky, actually does happen in some parallel universe.

This got me wondering: What if our world as we know it today happened for the most part, but “Lean” didn’t? The Seahawks still trounced the Broncos in the Super Bowl and Justin Beiber still got arrested, but maybe LEI never existed (gasp!), Toyota made haute couture, and Taiichi Ohno was a hairdresser. What then? Would we be stuck in a constant cycle of economic meltdown? Or would Lean have come to fruition through some other path? Maybe we would have something totally different and even better?

There are some facts about our current universe that do make me feel a little more secure about a Lean destiny. First of all, human brains are all hard-wired with the Scientific Method and innate problem solving skills. If we didn’t have those, we wouldn’t be here having this discussion and Socrates wouldn’t have taught us how to ask really good questions.

Second, while not typically part of our Lean community, many companies like Apple, Google, and Walmart have all succeeded through learning, problem solving, experimentation, and systems thinking. Their paths may have been different, but somehow each resulted in successful, value-creating enterprises.

And lastly, focusing on customers, recognizing a higher organizational purpose, and engaging the entire workforce--all of these things existed well before the machine changed the world. That’s not to diminish Toyota and Lean’s contributions in shaping all of that, but it is safe to say that Lean co-evolved with other progress in science and business.

Still, I worry Lean is sitting on a bubble. There are other natural forces that drive humans to always want something new and improve like the next flavor of leadership thinking. And there is no shortage of consultants, authors, and just plain bored managers willing to provide it (whether it’s truly value-added or not). This leaves us with a range of options for shaping the future of Lean. On one end of the spectrum, we could just let nature take its course and see what happens. Or, we could take a more active role in influencing what Lean is going to become. #1 has a much higher probability of ending very badly, so I vote for #2.

In the lean community, we talk about “gaps” – the difference between where we are now and where we either should be or want to be. Ironically, however, we rarely talk about Lean’s gaps. While I’ve never hear anyone claim that Lean is perfect, I've often heard so-called experts blame organizations that they just aren’t “doing it right” or “trying hard enough.” Blaming your customer is rarely a path to success.

So in an attempt to face this universe’s cold, cruel reality, here are a few of the gaps that I've been enlightened about by some of Lean’s customers:

  • If I ask 5 “experts” what Lean is, why do I get 10 answers? Why is there so much variation? Why are there so many books explaining Toyota or even Lean in general?
  • If Lean is so good, why is it so hard to implement? Why is the failure rate so high?
  • Did Toyota look thin because they stood next to fat competitors in the auto industry? Apple makes more profit on < ¼ of the sales of Toyota. Doesn’t that make Apple about 4X more efficient in value creation?
  • Jet fighters are inherently unstable and that allows them to be more agile. If we standardize too much or only incrementally improve, won’t that make us less agile to rapidly changing markets?
  • Those Lean people are getting awfully snobby. Aren’t they supposed to be humble? And why is everyone speaking Japanese? How is that helping us learn faster and get more people on board?
  • Why don’t you “Show me the money!”? What good is Lean if the improvements don’t readily fall to the bottom line? (see Michael Ballé’s recent Lean Post for more on this point).

You and your organizations are the true customers of Lean. What gaps do YOU think we need to solve together to make Lean more valuable and thus more likely to stick around? 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  culture,  musings
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8 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Donovan March 21, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment

Thanks for your post Brent!

I think we need to keep running our own experiments, lean and otherwise, and sharing the results.  We, for instance, were able to reduce our leadtimes from months to days by applying lean principles and thinking in our factory.

I am thankful that I have access to the wealth of knowledge that is shared through the many books on this topic.  I hope to see many more featuring all of the incredible results that are being achieved everyday.  

There does seem to be some confusion regarding the definition of lean.  I like John Shook's...

"Systematically develop people, continuously improve processes to provide value and prosperity while consuming the fewest possible resources."


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Jair Reitsma March 21, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
I think we need some more opennes around ideas and pathways that help Lean practitioners with the current status of their organization.  For example, if I have a leadership team that is hard to engage on any organizational development topic, I need to get some different ideas and pathways to overcome the barriers and challenges I face, without most of the Lean community telling me that this is not "every employee improving their standard work daily" so I must be doing something wrong.  Or simply tell me to "engage my leadership team" or "wait until they move on."

The failure rate of "true" Lean transformation has a lot to do with accepting the fact that most organizations that start with Lean will take a long time to improve and that those improvements often times can be slow in coming at first, at least when you don't have the leadership taking charge of the effort or personally taking responsibility for systematically developing people and improving performance.

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Rey Elbo March 22, 2014

Hi Brent!

I like your article "Taiichi Ohno was a Hairdresser." And I'd like to seek your permission in publishing the same article in our souvenir booklet on the April 24, 2014 Lean Leadership Manila Summit.

We plan to have it printed alongside with your photo and brief CV.

Please let us know.

Best, Rey

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Brent Wahba March 24, 2014

Thank you very much, Rey - I would be honored if you used my article!

Best, Brent

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Mark Graban March 22, 2014
4 People AGREE with this comment

Interesting points. Yeah, Toyota was far better than the Detroit 3 (and the Europeans), who were arguably pretty screwed up. Toyota having half the defects, half the development time, half the whatever... that was a relative comparison.

All of the automakers have gotten better. Nobody is perfect. We shouldn't put Toyota up on that much of a pedestal. I toured one of their plants where the tour guide said, "Sometimes, when we find a defect, we let the line keep moving and we fix them later. Sometimes, we stop the line." Interesting. Are they "not being Lean?" or are they making reasonable judgments about how to respond to different problems/defects?

I agree about some of the snobbery or puffery that takes place out there. People calling themselves "sensei" and befuddling people with 100 Japanese words (and constantly introducing new ones).

This is just part of the current Lean healthcare controversy in Saskatchewan. I've seen a hospital fire a consulting group for, among other things, using too many Japanese terms and not communicating well with people.

There are many gaps (I know there are gaps in my own work, trust me), but we have to honestly identify the gaps and work toward solving them. 

No problems is a problem. A little better every day.

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RAGHU March 25, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment

Dear Mr Wahba,

1. I am deeply moved by your post as this is the thought process with which i am writing a paper on lean application and possible blunders;

2. Could you kindly allow me to borrow a para? ofcourse with suitable citation; i will forward address to my work after paper submission;

thanks in advance!

Reply »

Brent Wahba March 26, 2014

Thank you - I am so glad you liked it!  Please feel free to borrow and I greatly look forward to reading your paper.

Best, Brent

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Gregg Stocker March 27, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Brent – I agree.  One of the first things that I believe we need to do is end the bizarre fascination people have with 6-sigma.  The 6-sigma consultanting world have somehow connected it with lean, which has done nothing but confuse people (and make the consultants a lot of money).  Leaders will choose the method they want, but they need to understand that lean is much more transformational and difficult than 6-sigma, but results in far greater sustainability of improvements.

Thanks for the post.

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