I was recently asked my view on an idea going around the community of lean thinking people. This notion goes that in order to be a sensei one must be separated by no more than two or three degrees from Taiichi Ohno. Without any disrespect to the people in the so-called direct lineage from Taiichi Ohno (in the interest of disclosure, my teachers are among these) creating this sort of requirement is not only self-serving on the part of those who number among this clique, but also threaten to codify and stunt the development of the lean philosophy itself. Certainly there is a difference between someone who has worked at or with Toyota and those who have not. Yet I have met and worked with people who possessed the proximity to Taiichi Ohno but were not qualified to act as sensei. I have also worked with people who grew up in Youngstown, never read a book about Toyota and possessed all of the experience and wisdom to be called sensei.
For anyone unfamiliar with the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, it is named after the American actor who can be connected to seemingly any other actor with fewer than six degrees of separation. “Actor A was in a movie with actress B, B was in a movie with C, C with D, and D with Kevin Bacon!” Or so it goes. The “six degrees” exercise demonstrates that anyone who crosses a certain threshold of connectedness with other people will be connected with practically everyone else active within the same circles. It is a small world we inhabit, and any particular subset interest community such as TPS / Lean is inevitably even smaller. In other words there is nothing special or magical about the six degrees and some may say it’s well nigh inevitable.
In a similar way, the idea that one must be a only two or three degrees separated from Taiichi Ohno in order to claim status as a TPS sensei seems somewhat suspect. Closeness to or having studied directly under great masters certainly conveys a certain expectation of access to the unfiltered truth, but does not guarantee it. In fact some of the best work on maturing and expanding the Toyota Production System was done by those in the immediate generations after Ohno, active in the 1980s and 1990s. So a third, fourth or fifth degree of distance may be even more desirable than a second or third degree.
In fact even a complete lack of direct exposure to the “lineage” should be no great concern. Eminent scientists, inventors, mathematicians and philosophers across the ages have independently and repeatedly come up with the same ideas without crossing paths. After all, lean is not an attempt to copy TPS but to understand and apply the underlying thinking and behaviors. We should seek to learn from anyone who grasps this and can pass it on, if if that person is a 5 year old child. Most of the time these teachers are closer to 50 years old and have had close exposure to Toyota.
Science would never advance if we required that all quantum physicists studied under someone who studied under someone who studied under Einstein. It would certainly be cool to study under someone who knew Einstein and could tell personal stories about the man. However, a teacher with access to the latest thinking built on but not limited to the ideas of Einstein and others, with great communications skills would be the better choice almost every time.
Who were Taiichi Ohno’s teachers? Based on my unqualified understanding, there were three: the shop floor (gemba), a sense of urgency and the scientific method. The numbers that matter most are not the ones that measure degrees of separation from Ohno but those that measure one’s distance from the gemba, the speed to correct faults and the number of spins taken on the PDCA wheel. Those of us preoccupied with the degrees of separation between the sensei and Taiichi Ohno must surely be missing or at a distance from one of these three.