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A Continuing Lean Journey: The Shingo Prize at 25 -- Discovering the power of principles in culture change


In 1988, Shigeo Shingo, who taught industrial engineering methods at Toyota from roughly 1955 to 1980, received an honorary Doctorate of Management from Utah State University for writings and teachings that made key contributions to the development of the Toyota Production System, the model for what would later be called lean management.

Later that year, The Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing was organized and incorporated as part of the university. In 2007, the prize was renamed The Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence because its standards have relevance to continuous improvement efforts in every industry.

On the eve of the prize’s 25th anniversary, which will be marked by a special conference and award ceremony in Provo, Utah, May 6-10, 2013, LEI asked Executive Director Robert D. Miller to reflect on the lean management movement and the prize’s own continuing lean journey.

By Robert D. Miller

Executive Director

The Shingo Prize


The Shingo Prize standard is, by design, the most rigorous in the world for operational excellence. We believe Shigeo Shingo would only want to associate his name with the very best. Applicants for recognition are held to an identical standard no matter where they are located in the world.

But our standard has not always been so high. From its inception in 1988, the Shingo Prize evaluated organizations by noting their application of lean tools, the quality of their lean program deployment, and, to some degree, the engagement of their management teams. This process consistently resulted in eight to 10 organizations receiving the prize each year. All was fine until we realized that it wasn’t.

Problem or Current State 10 Years Ago
About 10 years ago we began to see small signs of fracture along the edges. Critics of our selection process began to emerge in blogs and websites and eventually began to confront us directly. They told us they were beginning to lose confidence in recommending, carte blanche, our recipients as benchmarking sites for their members.

Over time a great many recipients had not only not moved forward but in fact had lost considerable ground and were no longer considered as role models. 

There is an adage that states, “Your best friends are the ones that tell you the truth, even when it is hard to hear.” Fortunately, we had very good friends in the Association for Manufacturing Excellence and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.


As much as this hurt, it forced us to begin a deep and earnest assessment of our past recipients – specifically, which ones had sustained their improvements and which ones had lost ground. Our findings were alarming!

For many years our model tracked pretty closely with other award programs.  Without realizing it, we were evaluating the effective use of tools, the numbers and impact of events, the effectiveness of a lean program, the commitment to have full-time lean coaches, the personality of a change leader -- but not deep cultural transformation of the thinking and natural behavior of leaders, managers, and associates.

At the same time, we began to dig back through all of Shingo’s books to see if we could discover what it was that we were missing. To our surprise and delight, working from either end and toward the middle, we arrived at a unanimous conclusion. The difference between successful and unsuccessful efforts was always in an organization’s ability to get past the tools, events, and programs and to align management systems with principles. When such alignment took place, ideal behaviors followed and perpetuated a deep culture of operational excellence. 

We learned that even the best of the best prize winners had an extremely difficult time sustaining the gains we had observed during their assessments. Furthermore, we discovered that our assessment criteria had two major flaws: (1) our standard for what excellence looked like was based too much on outward appearance and not enough on the deeply embedded culture of the organization, and (2) we did not know how to accurately evaluate and measure the truth regarding an organization’s culture. 

Our insights sparked a year-long study to determine what did and did not work in sustaining improvement efforts and to understand the reasons behind success or failure.  We undertook the study in a spirit of continuous improvement, which embodied a lot of deep reflection, going to the gemba, respect for the opinions of others, and personal humility to acknowledge that what we had been doing was not helping companies the way we thought it was.


Based on our findings, in 2008 we developed the Shingo model that consists of an organized collection of guiding principles (the House) and a transformation process (the Diamond).  Together, this framework has become the basis for everything we do.

Since we published the new model and began speaking on this topic, the world has recognized that only a lean transformation at the root of organizational culture is sustainable over the long term.  

Some people will say you can't measure culture. We say if you can't measure it, you can't improve it.  What you need is a standard from which to compare current behavior.  The Shingo model asserts that the only standard from which you can build a culture are principles.  Principles are universal, timeless and inarguable.

Shingo, the Model, and the Prize

The Beginning

Few individuals have contributed as much to the development of the ideas we call TQM, JIT, and lean as did Shigeo Shingo, who wrote and published 18 books, eight of which were translated from Japanese into English. Many years before they became popular in the Western world, Shingo wrote about the ideas of ensuring quality at the source, flowing value to customers, working with zero inventories, rapidly setting up machines through the system of “single-minute exchange of dies” (SMED) and going to the actual workplace to grasp the true situation there. He worked extensively with Toyota executives, especially Taiichi Ohno, who helped him to apply his understanding of these concepts in the real world.

Always on the leading edge of new ideas, Shingo envisioned a collaboration with an organization that would further his life’s work through research, practical-yet-rigorous education and a program for recognizing the best in operational excellence throughout the world.

Guiding Principles and Shifting Paradigms

One of Shingo’s little known, but perhaps most important contributions, was his understanding of the relationship between concepts (principles), systems, and tools. Unfortunately, over the years, most of us have gravitated to and exalted the tools associated with effective operations and have paid too little attention to the power of the principles.

Shingo taught that understanding the principles behind the tools leads to higher-order thinking and answers the question, “why?” When people understand more deeply the why behind the how and the what, they become empowered to innovate and take individual initiative. As more and more people within a single organization begin to act independently based on their understanding and commitment to the principles, culture begins to shift. 

This fundamental truth is the basis for The Shingo Prize and the Shingo model.

Building on the work of Shingo, the mission of The Shingo Prize is to assist organizations of all kinds to create lasting cultures of operational excellence. We achieve our mission by focusing our efforts on timeless and universal principles.

As part of our efforts, we teach five fundamental paradigm shifts:

  1. Operational excellence requires a focus both on results and behaviors.
  2. Ideal behaviors in an organization are those that flow from the principles that govern the desired outcomes.
  3. Principles construct the only foundation upon which a culture can be built if it is to be sustained over the long-term.
  4. Creating ideal, principle-based behaviors requires alignment of the management systems that have the greatest impact on how people behave.
  5. The tools of lean, TQM, JIT, Six Sigma, etc. are enablers and should be strategically and cautiously inserted into appropriate systems to better drive ideal behavior and excellent results.

All Shingo recognition is based on the degree to which these paradigms are broadly understood and deeply embedded into the behavioral fabric of an organization, top-to-bottom and side-to-side.

Education, Assessment, and Recognition

Today, The Shingo Prize framework has three areas of focus: education, assessment, and recognition.

We teach leaders to better understand their roles in building a culture of operational excellence and we teach managers how to better align systems to drive ideal, principle-based behaviors.

Our focus on assessment is not as much on awarding The Shingo Prize, but more on using the Shingo model as the basis for honest, self- and organizational-evaluation and initiating lasting improvements to the culture. In fact, we often say that the “true” Shingo Prize is the culture of operational excellence that comes from a disciplined application of the Shingo model into your organization.

Recognition is given each year to successful challengers from around the world at the Annual Shingo Prize International Conference & Awards Ceremony and Gala. Recipients may come from any industry and any part of the world. While many warned us that the standard was too high and, consequently, no organization would apply, we have found the opposite to be the case. 

Every year we have more and more applications for assessment and recognition. While the number of recipients of the prize has been reduced dramatically, we now recognize 15-20 companies each year for their progress toward building this highly coveted culture with either a Shingo Bronze or a Shingo Silver Medallion.

This year’s Annual Conference and Award Ceremony will take place at a beautiful new conference center located in the heart of Provo, Utah. Surrounded not only by mountains and valleys, this location is also near many recipients of the prize who will be opening their doors to us during the week of the conference. The focus is devoted to teaching and sharing the journey of shifting from a primary focus on lean tools and events to a focus on principles and behaviors along with results.


If Shingo Were Alive Today …

A Q&A between the Lean Enterprise Institute and Robert D. Miller, executive director, The Shingo Prize

Q: What do you think Shigeo Shingo would think about the state of lean transformations today?

A:  I think he would be saddened to see us continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again without learning the lessons that he taught "that people need not only to understand the "know-how", but also must understand then "know-why."  The know-why are the principles.  Most books continue to state the principles in the first chapter then focus on the tools and a tool oriented deployment for the remaining 20 chapters.  In all fairness, we had to read all eight of Shingo's books multiple time to dig this message out of them.  It was there but was not easy to extract.

Q: What do you see as the top business drivers influencing companies to adopt lean now? Have they changed since the prize began?

A:  Every organization has different drivers and they are constantly changing.  What never changes is the fact that leaders are accountable for the business results.  What focusing on principles does is enable a smart leader to ask, what principle governs the outcomes that I am responsible?  Then ask what are the ideal, principle-based behaviors that flow from that principle and what systems in our organization do I need to adjust to create those behaviors in our people.  Operational Excellence requires a focus on both results and behaviors.  Ideal results require ideal behaviors.

Q: How many companies have won the prize and the research award?

A:  Prior to the creation of our new model in 2008, in a typical year we would recognize 10-12 companies with The Shingo Prize.  Since then our average per year is two.  We created two other categories to recognize companies progress; the Shingo Bronze and Silver medallions.  Today’s Bronze award is about where The Shingo Prize formerly was.