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Michikazu Tanaka of Daihatsu on “What I Learned from Taiichi Ohno”

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This week (and in some future columns as well, no doubt) I’ll indulge my deep interest in the history of Toyota by sharing some of my favorite stories from the words of the TPS innovators in the Birth of Lean.

Take the words of Michikazu Tanaka, on “What I learned from Taiichi Ohno.” Priceless. Priceless partly because they are reflections derived from his time of most intense learning under the direct tutelage of Ohno. Tanaka was already a successful production manager at Daihatsu when he met Ohno. Yet working with Ohno sparked a new and monumental leaning journey for Tanaka, and for his team.

Much of Tanaka’s learning took place when he was converting Daihatsu’s Kyoto plant to the TPS. I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting that plant, but many of my friends tell me that to this day Daihatsu Kyoto is one of the best examples of TPS in an auto assembly plant.

When the work of transforming that plant began, Tanaka knew Ohno mainly from reputation. And from what he knew, working with Ohno was not something to look forward to with glee. Ohno was already famous as a taskmaster.

(The following passages are taken directly from chapter two of The Birth of Lean. This chapter is comprised of a lengthy talk by Tanaka on his experience. Unless otherwise noted, they are in Tanaka’s voice. The material here is slightly edited for brevity. I urge you to read the original!)

Start with the work

One day, Ohno-san demanded that we get rid of the automated equipment for conveying side panels between processes. Side panels are big and heavy, and they are difficult for even two men to carry. Conveying them manually would mean considerably more work.

Our automated equipment had raised the side panels straight up and then moved them horizontally to the next process. But our manual pulley system pulled the side panels directly toward the next process along a diagonal path. So the manual system conveyed the side panels faster than the automatic system had. Sure enough, Ohno-san had noted the time loss that our automated system entailed. Only when we actually tried an alternative method in the workplace did we see how much time we were wasting.

Ohno-san cut right to the chase on his next visit: “Has the removal of the automatic equipment been causing headaches for people in the workplace?”

“It was a problem at first,” I acknowledged. “And we experimented with a number of possible solutions. We finally settled on a pulley system, which has actually reduced the conveyance time some.”

“That’s good to hear. I wasn’t entirely confident about how things would work out. And I was thinking in the car about the trouble that I might have caused for your people. But I know that the workplace can be a source of incredible wisdom when the need arises. That really is good to hear.”

Ohno-san repeated two or three times during our conversation that he had been worried about causing trouble for people in the workplace. He was the first senior executive who I ever heard express that kind of concern.

I knew then that he really approached kaizen from the standpoint of the workers…

Gemba gembutsu [also genchi gembutsu: a commitment to seeing things (gembutsu) firsthand as they really are in the workplace (Gemba or genchi)] was absolutely fundamental to Ohno-san’s approach. He never rendered judgment simply on the basis of hearing about something. He always insisted on going to the place in question and having a look. On occasions when we might press him for an opinion, he’d say, “You’re the one who has seen the thing. You know better than I do. How could I talk about something that I haven’t seen?”

“Your job isn’t to ‘teach’…”

(Ohno would assign individuals from Toyota to assist Daihatsu with their kaizen. On one occasion, he assigned a Toyota production engineer to help with some automation kaizen. Tanaka wondered how would help them.)

…for a week he did nothing at all. He simply watched what was happening in the workplace. On the Monday of his second week at our plant, he came by my desk and described his impressions and his plans as follows.

I watched the activity in your workplace carefully for a week, and I saw that people are working extremely well. I struggled to think of something that I could do for you, and my conclusion was that I have no role to play here.

I stopped by Ohno-san’s house on the way home Friday evening and told him what I have just told you. He said, ‘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.”

The real purpose of kanban

In the beginning, Tanaka wasn’t a fan of Ohno’s kanban system. Over time and through experience, though, Tanaka learned what Ohno was really trying to get at with kanban. His conversation with Ohno:

…I was completely wrong about the kanban. I thought of it entirely in terms of reducing work in process, raising productivity, and illuminating problems. Of course, it is good for all those things. But your basic aim is something else, isn’t it? You use the kanban to create a positive tension in the workplace by reducing work in process, and that motivates people to do better than they ever thought they could do. Isn’t that what you’re really aiming for?”

A professor from a German university came to our plant one time to learn about the kanban system. He started off by asking me about the purpose of kanban. I replied that the kanban was a tool for tapping people’s potential by fostering a creative tension in the workplace. “I had always heard that kanban were for reducing inventories,” he replied, “but your answer makes more sense.”

kaizen and failing

To us, Ohno-san was like a god. But he was ever aware of his fallibility, and he was determined not to let his mistakes become a burden on people in the workplace. That’s why he was always impatient to try out new ideas immediately. “I don’t always get things right,” he’d say. “And if I’ve got something wrong, I want to fix it right away.” And that’s why we scheduled our kaizen in minutes and hours, not in days and weeks.

“If you’re going to do kaizen continuously,” he’d go on, “you’ve got to assume that things are a mess.

kaizen is about changing the way things are. If you assume that things are all right the way they are, you can’t do kaizen. So change something!

Respect for people and the Gemba and kaizen

Ohno: “When you go out into the workplace, you should be looking for things that you can do for your people there. You’ve got no business in the workplace if you’re just there to be there. You’ve got to be looking for changes you can make for the benefit of the people who are working there.”

Here’s an example of Ohno-san’s approach. He was observing the work on an engine assembly line one time when he was a plant manager, and he noticed that one of the workers needed to lift a heavy engine block once during each work cycle. Ohno-san wondered why that was necessary. He called the production chief over and ordered him to go find out what was going on. The production chief came back and reported that the roller conveyor was broken.

“What in the world do you think you’re doing here?” shouted Ohno-san. “We don’t hire people to lift engine blocks. You go check and see right now if you’re not sitting on other problems just like this one.” The production chief soon reported three similar problems, and he received the predictable scolding from Ohno-san. “You’re out here on the floor every day, but you’re not really seeing anything: whether your people are having problems with something, whether waste is happening, whether you have overburden somewhere.”

“Ohno-san insisted that only about half of the activity in a typical workplace was value-added work. The rest was just spinning wheels, not making any money for the company. He taught us to see…

When Ohno-san sensed a problem, he’d spend an hour or even two hours at one spot. (He) would keep looking at things for as long as it took to figure out what the problem was. He warned us that “waiting until you’ve seen the data is too late for kaizen. You can evaluate the day’s data and figure out that ‘hey, that machine stopped a lot’ or ‘that process was improving,’ but the horse is already out of the barn. A whole day has passed while you were processing the data. You’ve got to act on the spot.”

Ohno on truth…

(This passage shares statements from Ohno that Tanaka captured. Tanaka’s comments on these thoughts are in brackets.)

“Telling lies is bad, but being fooled by lies is worse.” [Tanaka: Making decisions on the basis of written materials can produce bad decisions. If you’ve got doubts about something, you need to go to the workplace and see for yourself. The president at a company came from an administrative background, and he couldn’t determine what was what when a technical issue arose at a board meeting. So he went to the workplace to see what the problem was. He discovered that half of what a director responsible for production had said at a board meeting was untrue. The president started visiting the workplace occasionally. Word got around that he has keeping an eye on things, and the directors stopped making false reports.] “Managers and general managers are good liars. But directors are even better.”

Anyone can gain knowledge through study. But wisdom is something else again. And what we need in the workplace is wisdom. We need to foster people who possess wisdom. The only way to do that is to set our goals high and force people to accomplish more than they might have thought possible.

Once people really resolve to do something, the necessary wisdom arises. The people grow, and they assert new capabilities. The kanban didn’t arise from textbook learning. It arose from practical experience in the workplace, and the best way to learn about kanban is to use them.

[Tanaka: “Ohno-san told us, “Books are appearing about kanban, but only someone who actually uses kanban can really understand how they work. You guys have learned about kanban by using them, so you don’t need to read my book.” So I never did read his book.”]

“People who excel at anything tend to be people who insist on seeing things for themselves. That’s because the facts are in the things that we can actually see, and we can only get at the truth through the facts. Just thinking about things in your own head won’t lead you to the truth.”

“We have too many people these days who don’t understand the workplace. They’ve got that tinfoil over their eyes. They think a lot, but they don’t see. I urge you to make a special effort to see what’s happening in the workplace. That’s where the facts are. And the truth is hidden in the facts. Our job is to get a handle on the truth.

And that’s what “Gemba” or “genchi genbutsu” are all about – getting to the truth, gaining wisdom, respecting people and making things better.


Reader reaction to “Birth of Lean” is beginning to roll in and initial response in enormously positive. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, which I will pass along to authors Shimokawa and Fujimoto and translator-editor Brian Miller.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Anthony April 8, 2009
Best Quote Ever, "Just thinking about things in your own head won’t lead you to the truth." How very true. Thanks for posting this excerpt from the book. After reading these short sections, I'm excited to read the entire book.
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