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Taiichi Ohno's Birthday and 100 Years of Lean

John Shook
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Today is Taiichi Ohno's birthday. Were he alive, the primary developer of the Toyota Production System would be turning 100 years old. Much has happened in the world of lean thinking and practice over the past century. Exactly how much has happened, and how we might evaluate that, depends much on how we define exactly what "lean" is.

Also 100 years ago, Henry Ford was preparing to open his historic Highland Park assembly plant where he would show the power of flow production - central to what we now call lean - to the world. Around the same time numerous innovations essential to lean thinking emerged: the birth of industrial engineering as the science of efficient work design, the genesis of modern psychology as a true science sowing the seeds of today's discoveries in the neuroscience of human learning, the framing of the scientific method as it forms the basis of lean problem solving. Lean isn't lean without all of these.

100 years ago Toyota was still Toyoda the loom company. Group founder Sakichi Toyoda was hard at work developing the automatic loom that would provide the funding for his son Kiichiro to launch his auto business. Ohno was born in China, where Sakichi would soon set up his ultimate loom factory and perfect his automatic loom, and where Ford's motorization dream will reach its ultimate apex (Chinese auto makers sold over 18 million vehicles last year, more than was ever sold in the US even at its peak, and the Chinese market is still growing).

Today, on what would've been Ohno's 25th birthday (he was a February 29 leap year baby), I am happy to announce that we are releasing the electronic version of my favorite book about the genesis of the Toyota Production System, The Birth of Lean. What’s more, we are sharing a free pdf of one of my favorite chapters: "What I Learned from Taiichi Ohno", the insightful, colorful story of Ohno providing direct, intensive coaching for an executive of Daihatsu.

The Birth of Lean, a collection of conversations with individuals who developed TPS, reinforces the idea that lean is no less than a "revolution in consciousness," as Ohno put it. The deep lesson is that even the best of business systems is a process-in-process. TPS was developed not by grand design but by emergent problem-solving and experimentation. In Ohno's words: "We are doomed to failure without a daily destruction of our various preconceptions."

How can we make that a daily practice? Always start by going to the work, learning to see the work, seeing it from the perspective of the worker, being willing - in fact seeking - to fail through experimentation, remaining open to changing one's opinion through discovery - and never accepting a better condition as the best condition. Embed challenge and dissatisfaction into every practice. The system is built on, is the embodiment of, learning oneself and facilitating learning in others based on respect. In the chapter we are sharing, Ohno coaches Daihatsu Motors executive Michikazu Tanaka: "Your problem is that you’re trying to think of something to teach the people at Daihatsu. You don't need to teach them anything. What you need to do there is help make the work easier for the operators. That's your job."

Ohno was explicit about how he adapted so many features of Ford's system, and emphasized that he shared with Ford a belief that they should continually make it new. Ohno wrote of Ford's business spirit: "Progress cannot be generated when we are satisfied with existing situations."

A lot has happened in 100 years. How much progress? What would Henry Ford think of his dream of motorizing the world? What would Taiichi Ohno think if he could see how his production system has proliferated, propagated, disseminated? I suspect they would both have mixed feelings. Dissemination? Yes. Propagation of the true intent?

I imagine both Ford and Ohno would quickly find much to challenge with the current state of industry. Henry would be pleased to see the incredible turnaround of the company that still bears his name. But he would be baffled and - I bet - unhappy with the modern-management corporation with its layers of conference-room managers, rigid organization charts, and impediments to continuous experimentation. Also, he would wonder why people need so much crap on their cars when the Model T was, actually, just fine.

As for Ohno, surely he would be astonished at the wide dissemination of his ideas (check out this excellent article by Jeff Immelt about the commendable adoption of lean manufacturing at GE Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky. Just as surely, Ohno would be distressed by the all-to-common focus of many practitioners to apply lean tools without linking them to deeper purpose.

I'd like to think that Ohno would celebrate his birthday today by drawing a fresh "Ohno Circle" (where he would identify a good spot to observe the front-line, real value-creating work of the business), and observe the way work is done in 2012 to find deep, even revolutionary, improvements. I suggest we all do exactly that, pressing forward to new frontiers while continuing to deepen the fundamentals, asking ourselves: what preconceptions shall I destroy today? As Ohno says in The Birth of Lean: "If you're going to do kaizen continuously, you've got to assume that things are a mess."

A lot has happened in 100 years. How much progress? I suspect Ford and Ohno would have mixed feelings. What do you think?

John Shook

P.S. If you wish to learn more about Taiichi Ohno and the evolution of the Toyota Production System I would recommend a handful of readings. Start with the excellent chapter from The Birth of Lean: "What I Learned from Taiichi Ohno". If you like it, consider purchasing other individual chapters or the complete e-book. (The Birth of Lean, was originally published in Japan as "Toyota Production System no Genten" by Koichi Shimokawa and Takahiro Fujimoto, translated by Brian Miller and published by LEI in 2009).

I wrote several columns about this book which you can access here and here. Michael Ballé has written a thoughtful analysis of the book. Lean thinker Jon Miller has not only done an excellent translation of one of Ohno's books, Workplace Management, he has summarized each chapter and shared many other lessons from Ohno. (And finally, you can go straight to the source by reading the classic Ohno book Toyota Production System).

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban March 16, 2012

Thank you for telling us all about what would have been Mr. Ohno's 100th.

In my blog post, there are comments from Sami Bahri DDS about how Ohno's books influenced him. Also down in the comments section are links to:

1) Norman Bodek (who worked with Mr. Ohno in translating his books) and his recollections about Ohno (in a podcast)

2) Eric Ries ("lean startup" guy) who talks in a podcast about how Ohno's books helped him.


char.aznable April 27, 2012

Dear Shook:

It's important to go to genba to grab the real situation and figure out root cause. But as there are many management level in a company, which level should go to genba?