Gemba Lessons from Ohno – How to Crush Waste and Raise Morale

G U E S T  A R T I C L E

The creator of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, once described himself as “a bossy Japanese man with a mustache” (Workplace Management, 1988). He was known for holding people to higher expectations and calling out mistakes and problems that others would have let slide. He did all this while adhering to the ideal of respect for people, one of the key pillars of Toyota’s culture. This brings up a very important and basic question that anyone in a leadership position has to confront at some point. How can you be “the boss” and still be respectful? How do you crush waste without crushing people’s spirits?

There are a number of reasons why a manager might avoid confronting a problem in the workplace: fear of not being liked, fear of the employees not reaching their goals, fear of rejection from their peers, or in some cases, even embarrassing their predecessor. Ohno clearly overcame these fears if he ever had them. He was known for being blunt, focused, and even brutal in confronting situations where his employees were not up to Toyota’s standards. Still, this reputation doesn’t tell the whole story. Although I was never fortunate enough to meet Taiichi Ohno is person, I have learned a lot about him from his closest protege, Hitoshi Yamada, who is now one of the foremost thought leaders on TPS and Kaizen beyond Toyota (I wrote another article outlining his streamlined waste categories). Sensei Yamada has told us that Taiichi Ohno was really a very caring man. He truly wanted people to reach their full potential, but he used his bluntness and confrontational style to ensure the highest success for each individual.

Ohno in the Gemba

Ohno’s guidelines for transparent communication

I recall talking to Michiaki Seki, the president of Kashiwa Mokko, a furniture maker in Japan that implemented TPS under Ohno’s guidance. Mr. Seki told me of a time when Mr. Ohno entered the facility and immediately began directing staff to remove all the shelves. Mr. Seki was completely taken aback and asked Mr. Ohno why he was telling his staff to remove shelves. “Shelves are a source of waste and must be removed,” explained Mr. Ohno. “We need to remove the ability to store things in the factory so you can see and achieve the goal of manufacturing to true customer demand.” Ohno went on to point out that they were missing delivery dates because they were making stock that did not have a delivery date – they were making items based on forecast. He said that if they make “maybe stock,” it creates “stockout stock,” and they will never be able to locate the correct stock for delivery.

In the end, the business went from 60 days of inventory to 1-3 days, depending on the process and real lead times. If Mr. Ohno had not pointed out the issue and focused everyone’s mindsets on waste elimination, they would have never achieved this goal. Mr. Seki vividly remembers these times with Taiichi Ohno, telling us that no one could comprehend the true implications of what Mr. Ohno was sharing back then. The company continues to implement Kaizen with direct coaching from Mr. Yamada now. The production department has successfully adapted to One-Piece-Flow and achieved leveled production using a Pull System.

The lesson here is that someone must call attention to problems, and that requires courage that leadership must show first. If you are not going to do it as a leader, no one else will. As Dr. Deming taught, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” We should blame the process not the person. But sometimes addressing a problem with the process makes it necessary to confront people about the problem. The difference is having the right intentions when doing so and making those intentions clear as Ohno surely did. You are not confronting them to blame them for the problem. You are confronting them about the problem so they can overcome the challenges the problem in the system creates. Changes need to be made by the people who work within the system; the problem is not going to solve itself.

As with many things in leadership, you must follow your intentions with actions to set an example. You wouldn’t want your team to point out problems without following that by working on a solution, so you shouldn’t do this either. While the people who work in the system are the best people to find solutions, that doesn’t mean that leaders can just sit around and wait. You must demonstrate through actions to cultivate the right perspective (mindset), reveal the factual issue (challenge), and take action (break the status quo). The more frontline people lead themselves, the more leaders must take on the role of a “sponsor.” This means encouraging the best behaviors, contextualizing purpose, and growing out of the “leader” role. As they take on more leadership characteristics, you need to strive to foresee your frontline peoples’ needs for resources, authority, and motivation to solve their own problems.  Once they start leading, the biggest challenge as a sponsor is trying to stay ahead of their velocity of depth and breadth of resources.

The Elephant in the Room

In our book “True Kaizen,” Toshihiko Miura and I used the analogy of “the elephant in the room” to describe a problem that nobody wants to talk about. This is a familiar analogy in Western culture, but when you look at it from the point of view of someone who has never heard the expression before, it is clear why this idiom became so popular.

Imagine you are in a crowded room and right in the middle is a six ton elephant. It would be obvious to anyone that the elephant was there and that it was unusual, yet no one says a thing. Some problems in the workplace are as obvious as a full-grown elephant, but no one calls attention to them. As a leader, you want people to report and address these problems, but most people are conditioned to keep problems under wraps for fear of being blamed and the consequences that come with this. As a leader, you can’t expect people to reverse this kind of negative culture on their own. Leaders must first show the courage to confront problems. By doing this action, they prove that the benefits far outweigh the fear for everyone involved. And in the end, as the “elephant” gets smaller, the organization gains more sensitivity to call out smaller issues. Even issues that seem small in the moment can become the future organization’s largest problems if left unaddressed.

The examples in this article are based on my book “True Kaizen” which is available now from CRC Press and Enna. Click on the cover image below for a free preview.

About the author:

Collin McLoughlin President, Kaizen Expert, Shingo Prize Publisher and Author Enna Corporation.

For additional details, see Collin’s profile on LinkedIn.

Book(s) from the author

Copyrighted Material: This article has been produced with permission from the author. Title picture is not associated with the original writing and provided by our sponsor


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