Review of Management Lessons from Taiichi Ohno by Takehiko Harada

Harada book Mgmt OhnoI had previously read and enjoyed the Japanese version of this book by Toyota veteran Takehiko Harada. Therefore I was curious to see how its idiosyncrasies would be handled in the process of editing and presenting it to a Western audience. Released in English as Management Lessons from Taiichi Ohno: What Every Leader Can Learn from the Man Who Invented the Toyota Production System, the book only partially lives up to the promise of its title.


Chapter 1

The 150-page book is organized in four chapters. It begins with “Learning from Mr. Taiichi Ohno.” Chapter 1 is presented as a series of 15 “lessons” based on the author’s experience. These are a collection of sayings of Taiichi Ohno, both from Harada’s personal recollections and from those heard second-hand. These provide an interesting window into the early days in the factories at Toyota. The themes run the gamut from going to the gemba, beginning kaizen at the downstream process, limiting work in process, the foreman’s role in standard work, cross training, andon response, kanban, equipment investment and the role of engineers and more. There are gems such as the reflection on how Ohno implemented new things,

“…we can note the following key success factors:

  1. Hands-on role modeling by top management
  2. No compromises, no fear of failure, and no giving up halfway with results that were “half good”
  3. Recognizing that it would take time for things to become sustainable and for the people working there to be able to improve and do kaizen, so a long-term follow-up had to be part of the process”

The 15 lessons are based deeply on manufacturing and may be difficult for people to generalize as “management lessons” beyond factory operations. There is no clear storyline connecting the 15 lessons, and as a group of stories they don’t succeed in creating any sense that a management system was being taught by Ohno. The reader would not be wrong to expect that perhaps these 15 themes would be further developed and explicitly elaborated in the remaining three chapters of the book, but oddly this is not so.

Chapter 2

In the second chapter, titled “The Role of the Top” [Management], the author attempts to detail “exactly what top management should do and how to go about doing it” in regards to implementing lean vis a vis the Toyota Production System. The chapter promises to detail the “management structure” needed for a successful TPS deployment, but does not deliver. The definition of “structure” appears to be “rules, organization and operations” which might be better termed “system”. There is no detailed discussion of either a management structure for lean or for a deployment structure needed for a lean conversion. While there is vague discussion of the fact that Harada implemented TPS at various plants and wrote a handbook for this purpose, it is no clear whether he is sharing the details of this handbook. The role of top management is stated as being to “understand the interrelationship between the rules, organization structure, and operations and change them step by step. Top management must be a step ahead so that the employees don’t feel afraid or lost int he midst of the changes” but without specific guidance on how to go about doing this, it is more tell than show.

Chapter two also introduces “the four stages of things” which are also called in the book “four categories” and “four perspectives”. These are essentially the industrial engineering categories of waiting, inspection, transport and processing. Harada points out that the former 3 increase cost and processing adds value, and that flow is improved by reducing the non value added. The chapter ends with lessons on how to take waste out of operations. While the ability to distinguish value from waste is essential, it is not sufficient in explaining the “role of the top” or exactly what management must do and how, in order to deploy TPS.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 is titled “The Role of Management: Enable Your Employees to Do the Work Well”. While the implied theme of chapter 3 is empowering or equipping employees to succeed in their work, how to do this is at best hinted at. Typical advice takes the form of statements such as

“Create a good structure and add good management to it to make a workplace that can make full use of people’s skill, improvement ideas, and teamwork. I think you can see that this is quite possible and not that difficult to do.”


Such advice follows detailed explanations of how to create and sustain flow within a factory, complete with diagrams, photos and technical TPS terminology with which the reader seeking lessons from Taiichi Ohno may or may not be familiar. While it is true that correctly implementing manufacturing cells, hourly production boards, andon lamps, pull systems, water spiders and so forth improves flow and creates the possibility of employees to do their work well, it is not always the case that implementing the lean tools will motivate or engage people.

The author’s central assumption in this chapter is that workers are competitive with each other, and want their superior performance to be seen and recognized, and that flow and visual systems enables this, therefore it raises motivation. This is surprisingly naive. Further, he assumes that the traditional managent will heal itself, if only they allow the lean manufacturing process to show how badly managers are managing

“Basically, for the person in charge of an area, if he has an unmanaged finished goods store, it becomes blatantly obvious to everyone that he is a bad manager, he has no skill, and he also has no motivation to improve.”


The author explains that the production line supervisor is expected to use the lean tools such as production control board, the problem solving process and fix the production system together with motivated engineers and workers. This is a wonderful vision of a bottom-up culture change that is near utopian if the “no skill” and “no motivation to improve” manager is left in place. There is an assumption that the layer of management above the front line has either abdicated or succeeded already in engaging the self-directed teams to fix and run the factory. If the bad manager has not empowered the front line, what then? Likely this was seldom an issue at Toyota, and this real-world issue is not addressed. There is very little to disagree with in chapter 3 in terms of content and method, but not enough practical advice to bridge the gap between TPS at Toyota and lean in the modern workplace.

Chapter 4

The inclusion of chapter 4 with so little consideration of the non-Japanese audience is a puzzling editorial decision. The title of chapter 4 is “If You Respect Other People, They Will Trust You”. It should be titled, “Advice to Japanese Managers on Managing Your Overseas Operations” because that is the content. Ohno had limited exposure in applying TPS outside of Japan, and had no experience setting up overseas operations. There is little or nothing that can be traced directly to Ohno in chapter 4, except in the broadest sense that any advice from an Ohno-trained TPS veteran could. The insights in this chapter are valuable, if read in the context of the Japanese manager’s challenges overseas. Some of it is useful, such as the 3-level model of culture, while some of it is of little value. Harada’s advice such that, “the language of the company should be Japanese” is not even practical for Japanese companies today who wish to work internationally. His broader point about communication could have been made without this. It would have been simple to rewrite the chapter addressed to managers in general, not necessarily Japanese, making almost all of the same points regarding extending the lean management system beyond one’s own company, into different cultures and communities. It is a lost opportunity. Chapter 4 feels like a meeting agenda item that makes us wonder, “Was I invited by mistake?”


As another reference on lean manufacturing from a Toyota veteran from Japan, the book has value. As a book on management lesson from Taiichi Ohno, it’s delivers little beyond the first chapter. To be fair, it is important to know that the original Japanese title of this book translates as “People Who Create Material Flow: The Role of Top Management that Taiichi Ohno Wanted to Communicate” (モノの流れをつくる人-大野耐一さんが伝えたかったトップ・管理者の役割).

In other words, Harada’s message based on the Japanese title of the book is, “What Taiichi Ohno was trying to say was that it’s the job of top management to create flow.” This explains the emphasis in chapters 2 and 3 on aspects of industrial engineering, process flow and the details of flow manufacturing.  The choice of the English title “Management Lessons from Taiichi Ohno” unfortunately sets up the reader for disappointment, because it neither accurately represents the author’s intent nor the content of the book. This is book is misleadingly titled and structurally flawed, but contains enough gems to be a good addition to one’s lean manufacturing library.

Tagged in:,