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Cardboard, Duct Tape, and String: The Do-First Mindset

by Mark Reich
August 15, 2018

Cardboard, Duct Tape, and String: The Do-First Mindset

by Mark Reich
August 15, 2018 | Comments (12)

I remember the date like it was tattooed on my left arm. October 25, 1994. It was a Tuesday. 

I’d been given the assignment to go and work with a company that produced roll-formed metal parts for the appliance industry just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I had just moved from Toyota City, Japan to Lexington, KY. Toyota had transferred me from a product planning job (read desk jockey) to a job working at Toyota Supplier Support Center (TSSC).

Toyota established TSSC in 1992 with the sole purpose of sharing the vaunted Toyota Production System (TPS) with any manufacturing company that was interested in transforming its manufacturing operations from traditional push-type manufacturing to a pull system using TPS. Amazingly, Toyota did this for nothing – for many years, we didn’t even charge companies for our travel costs. A good majority of these companies were Toyota suppliers, but many also were not. Furniture manufacturers, toy manufacturers, household goods manufacturers, and companies in many other industries could benefit by learning about TPS. And Toyota helped companies actually change the plant floor – this was not a training course.

This was done for many reasons, some political, but regardless Toyota had made a big corporate decision that it would give its most precious knowhow to anyone who asked. To this day, that idea seems a bit unreal to me.

But I was a fairly young employee who had spent six years working in Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) in Toyota City, Japan, the only American in a Department of 150 people. And the work I did was all administrative, working with Chief Engineers to plan new vehicles for overseas markets.

In 1994, I was transferred from Japan to Lexington to work in TSSC and the third week after I arrived in the U.S. I was asked to go to Chattanooga.

My mentor at this project was a man by the name of Mr. Yokoi (I mentioned him in my last column) and he had been sent for 4 months to the U.S. from Japan to help TSSC transform companies and to develop people like me. Greenhorn Americans who had little or no experience.

My career up to this point had been behind a desk. I was an English major in college with no production background at all. No engineering experience. But Toyota chose to invest in trying to make me one.

As true lean practitioners, we should demonstrate with the company how to make physical change at the gemba. Just coaching advice isn’t enough if the gemba doesn’t change for the better.And on this day, I was standing on a shop floor in Chattanooga staring at a semi-automated arc-welding and assembly operation. Mr. Yokoi was off somewhere in the same plant trying to fix a big problem of defective parts getting out to customers. He had asked me to look at this production cell with the purpose of improving productivity. The person responsible for arc welding performed the welding of two components of a refrigerator door handle. Another operator received the welded part, packed it, boxed it, and put it in a pile for shipping.

Mr. Yokoi had given me, what I’m sure to him, was a simple assignment to take out the waste of this operation so that one person could do welding, packing and boxing. I’m also sure he knew that with my capability, this would not be easy.

And his initial instruction was amazingly vague. Stand right here, watch this operation, identify waste, and see if one person can do it. Not two. Then he’d run off to his other duties.

I stood and watched, wrote down a few ideas I had for improvements, and after what seemed like eternity (though it was only a couple hours) Mr. Yokoi stopped by again. He asked what I’d done. I showed him my ideas and shared my brilliance, believing that he would fully agree. My ideas were so good! One example: as part of the welding process, the operator had to stand and hold the right side of the part while the left side was welded. This seemed like waste to me. He just stood there holding the part – why not ask maintenance to build a small jig on which the part could rest. Pretty smart, huh?

Mr. Yokoi didn’t seem to think so. He looked at me quizzically, laughed and walked away. What did I do? Was I supposed to follow him? I stood there a bit stunned.

This time he came back in 5 minutes. He had a bunch of cardboard under his left arm and roll of duct tape in his right hand.

He said, “Before we send maintenance off on some adventure and potentially waste their time, build this little jig of yours with cardboard and duct tape.” (Let’s just say, his English wasn’t that perfect and he wasn’t quite that cordial). Then he handed me the cardboard and duct tape and walked away.

WTF was I supposed to do with this stuff?

So I spent the next hour figuring out how this might work, how I might design it. I wrote out a sketch. Mr. Yokoi came back. I showed him my sketch. He looked at the cardboard and duct tape laying on the factory floor next to the machine and said:  “Maybe you didn’t understand. I wanted you to actually use that stuff.  You don’t need this.” (pointing at my notepad - again, edited for English quality and cordiality).  He looked at me much less pleased this time and stormed off quickly.

So I picked up the things he’d handed me, grabbed a cutter, got down on the floor next to the machine and actually tried to make a cardboard jig. And an amazing thing happened over the afternoon.

First of all, it took me a more than an hour just to get something cut out and constructed with the cardboard and duct tape that had hope of being sturdy enough to hold up under repeated use. Then, once I’d gotten something together I realized that in order to try it, I actually had to interact with the Team Member doing the job to see:

  • If it worked for him. Did this help him solve a struggle he had?
  • If it fit dimensionally in the machine.

It was a transformative experience for me. We talk a lot about the importance of engaging the Team Members and hearing their ideas. But this approach was something much more. It was in many ways like hand-writing an A3. Through the use of cardboard and duct tape, I was able to work together with the Team Member, pull in his ideas, and engage together to make something that worked for him. He really was part of the improvement process. After multiple tries with the Team Member, we landed on something that worked and THEN asked maintenance to make something more permanent.

Mr. Yokoi had taught me an amazing lesson in kaizen and in life (he did come back at the end of the day, laughed, and clapped at my cardboard kaizen, by the way).

During the years I subsequently spent at TSSC, cardboard, duct tape, and string were constantly reinforced as the main tools of our kaizen efforts.  It allowed for quick kaizen, cost no money, and most importantly was a primary tool to work together with the Team Member to improve the job.

There are a couple more fundamental concepts here.

As true lean practitioners, we should demonstrate with the company how to make physical change at the gemba. Just coaching advice isn’t enough if the gemba doesn’t change for the better. We don’t want to do it for them, but we can demonstrate a good way by doing it with them. And the simple tools of cardboard, duct tape, and string can be that entry-point.

Furthermore, on a bit deeper level, using cardboard, duct tape and string promotes a do-first kaizen mindset. It allows one to iterate quickly and not get stuck overthinking numbers, methods, etc. It gives birth to something deeper than the words “hands-on” can easily convey. As you iterate improvement quickly with these tools, this rapid rhythm of try-adjust-try-adjust can elevate the feeling of kaizen directed towards customer value and the Team Member needs. Dare I say, it creates a kind of a kaizen enthusiasm or “high”. Of course, we should understand the purpose behind the improvement, but it is a specific way to spark change.

Whatever field you work in, if you are responsible for kaizen in your company, strive for quick change in your workplace by finding your cardboard, duct tape, and string.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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12 Comments | Post a Comment
Nathan Ecret August 16, 2018
3 People AGREE with this comment

Great article, and good a good reminder for team member at all levels.  

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Kevin Kassa August 20, 2018

Great article.  I add PVC pipe to my kaizen materials list as well.  It is super easy to build racks / tables / stands right in the work cells.

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Arjan Meeuse August 21, 2018

Yeah, and Creform works fine also

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Phil Coy August 22, 2018

Let's say that your work station had to make any one of 400 products without any engineering standardization.  What would you do?  Build the 400 cardboard jigs or go talk to engineering?  Where would you put the 400 jigs?  How much time would it take to to do this?  How much of this time is value add?  Do you have to build the storage units as well? And then figure out the fastest way to get them?  And do all of that physically because you aren't allowed to conceptualize it first. 

To me to do it physically only is an enormous waste when the conceptual design of a value stream can be thought about and planned for in advance.  It seems to me that trying to do this physically with high mix is impossible.  And serves no real purpose.  Surely an estimate is suffient to move ahead.

We take an implementation by simulation approach where design of the end to end value stream is done quickly even if not precisely and move ahead.  How does one person or many people have an understanding of the end-to-end nature of how it all fits when they have to build it phsyically.  What is missing is design that can and should happen conceptually.  Maybe we are trying too hard to be granular too soon.


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Debi Brown August 23, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this reply

I would take into consideration that this was 1994 when this transpired. The important thing to take away from the story is the idea of string and duct tape. Too often, especially as management, we blast in with changes to make all better without considering the work itself and how the ideas really work. This is to drive home the point of interacting with those on a granular level as to how these changes might be optimal.

Now, if you have 400 cardboard jigs, you are in the creation stage and that woudln't make sense. This ideal is to improve more than create from ground level.

Excellent article on our mindset.


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Bruno August 23, 2018

I would say the take away is that the cardbord and duct tape was a easy way to to open up input and creative ideas from the operations group. It fostered hands on team work. It may not be the right tool in all cases but in a high volume low variation production line .. it looks like it worked. thanks

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Paul C. August 23, 2018

While I agree that going finely granular too early could potentially cause some problems, I would argue that driving forward with conceptualizations that were created without sufficient understanding of granular level issues is a far more common and generally much larger problem. It’s certainly what I’ve seen throughout my career.


I’ve seen countless cases of projects that were pushed forward on foundations of inaccurate or incomplete details. In the end they drive either underperforming outcomes or expensive and time consuming rework. In the worst cases they cause multiple iterations of failure and rework.


In the above case the cardboard may have formed the foundation of the eventual outcome. But more importantly, it created an opportunity for the practitioner and operator to communicate and learn with one another and from the process. And it cost basically nothing.  Even if that specific design had not been translated into a permanent “hard” tool, the information learned would be invaluable for whatever would come next.


I have been in the situation where a workstation was used to build 400 (give or take) different, unique products. And talking to both the operators and engineering was part of understanding the current state. It was that first duct-taped prototype for one specific part that showed what could be done and how it could work for all the parts. In the end it was made into a permanent tool with changes made only for durability. I didn’t make another one. They made 399 more.


Yes, they had to create a system for storage, retrieval and maintenance of 400 unique tools. In this particular case the costs were dwarfed by the massive benefits in quality and productivity.

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Tracy ORourke August 22, 2018

Thanks for sharing your article and the importance of Just-Do-It with duct tape, string and cardboard! We visited Zingerman's Mail Order and our tour guide kept saying, "Although this looks like cardboard and duct tape, it's not. It's a highly sophisticated inventory system." I loved it! :)

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Mark Reich August 27, 2018
4 People AGREE with this comment

Hello Everyone,

Thank you all for the comments and I appreciate the many perspectives that people have brought to this Post. 

My goal in drafting this story was mostly to share an experience that impacted how I think about work in general, how to improve work, how to engage people in that improvement, and for what purpose we improve the work.

As with anything in business or in life, there is no foolproof tool or method, but rather we should consider the application based on the situational needs at the time. 

The most important learning I gained on that day is that the responsibility for change rests in my hands and I should not allow any barrier, whatever it may be, to stand in the way of change.  There is always an opportunity for me to reflect on my approach. This has been one of the most valuable learning lessons of my career.  I’m not always successful, but I truly believe it’s the right way of thinking.



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Prabhat Vats October 15, 2018

Excellent article reminding the basis idea of Kaizen "Keep it Simple,Just do it"

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John Roehsler February 08, 2019

This article was used in my production operations course.  Very compelling!   I'm sure you wish you had a photo or two of your creation Mark.  Thanks for sharing.  John

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David September 10, 2019


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