Looking Right at the Essence of TPS

My friend Reiko Kano began her career as Taiichi Ohno’s interpreter thirty years ago. She then supported Ohno’s disciples, the Shingijutsu consultants, for decades. She recently wrote a book about her experiences. One of her stories resonated with me in particular.

In the late 1980s the world was just beginning to take note of Japanese manufacturing, drawn to buzzwords like QC circles, kanban, just-in-time and kaizen. Teams of American executives visited Japan hoping to see best-in-class practices. These visits featured bright and clean electronics factories, the Nissan plant which was full of shiny new robots and automation at the time, and other examples modern and high tech.

One visit included a Toyota plant that Taiichi Ohno had recommended to the group. This plant featured people working amongst old, well-worn machines in what were by comparison, dull and dingy conditions. The group expected to see cutting-edge manufacturing technology. Instead, they saw a humble plant with evidence of a stingy capital budget.

One of the American executives on this study group was so disappointed with the Toyota plant that he wrote Ohno a letter to that effect. Taiichi Ohno’s reaction to reading the letter was, “He was looking right at the essence of TPS and he missed it.”

This story struck me because it was as true 30 years ago as it was 10 years ago when I was organizing similar benchmarking visits to Japan. There were a couple of occasions when a tour group member just couldn’t get over the lack of safety glasses in the plants, the age of the machines, or the limited breakfast options at the hotels, convinced by such things that they had nothing to learn on this trip. We adjusted by setting expectations of what they will see before setting foot in the plants, and helping them make sense of it afterward. What did you look at? Why? What surprised you? What does this tell you about the thinking behind what you saw? What things would you like to adopt in your organization? What would it take to do that? And so forth.

The leaders on a factory visit aren’t really coming to “see” best-in-class. Seeing is a means to understanding, to developing a vision. But even understanding is useless without action. Perhaps they are seeking evidence to give them courage to act, to overcome mental obstacles keeping them from leading others towards world class.  It is important for the leader on a benchmark visit to be as clear as possible on this point, otherwise they may miss the answer staring them in the face.

As thirty years ago, so today, when people ask for recommendations for lean tours, “You know, a world class facility where our leadership team can see best-in-class lean culture with engaged employees in a highly variable demand and complex product mix environment while leveraging IoT,” preferably within driving distance. That’s all good, a delight all around when we can accommodate. But from now on, I’ll have to find a polite way to ask the question, “If your leadership team was looking right at it, would they know?”


  1. john mortimer

    February 6, 2018 - 6:50 am

    Great, thanks for that insight. Still, so long after it all started, why do most of us not see what is in-front of us? Having a flexible and learning mindset has to be one of the keys to the next generation of management thinking.

  2. Bob Emiliani

    February 6, 2018 - 8:52 am

    Nearly everyone wants to see an example. That tells us that nearly nobody thinks for themselves.

    • Anastasia Sayegh

      February 17, 2018 - 4:00 pm

      Yes! there are 1000 of companies out there practicing lean and succeeding in advancing there business, but there are 10.000 time more who tried and failed to do so, the question is how do we think we can achieve this level of success and reap all the benefits Lean promised us to get if practiced properly. Lean works, the point in a visit is not to only see best in class practice but also to expect visibility and transparency where you can see also the challenges in the implementation journey, the room left for improvement at both, operational and people engagement level. I liked the last sentence by Mr. Miller: ” If your leadership team was looking right at it, would they know”

  3. Bob Emiliani

    February 6, 2018 - 9:56 am

    Jon – In my experience in trips to Japan, few people do the homework needed to prepare themselves for what they will see. Instead, they assume their intelligence will instantly reveal all. Their overconfidence (“I’m smart, no need to prep”) means they see next-to-nothing. Have you had similar experiences?

    • Jon Miller

      February 6, 2018 - 11:13 am

      It depends on where the learner is at to begin with. The visits can be great eye-openers for those without strong preconceptions, but for others who have some expectation of world class that is not quite reality (e.g. shiny vs. dingy) it can take some coaching for them to see.

  4. Shrikant Kalegaonkar

    February 10, 2018 - 6:50 pm

    Unless we come upon a thing without any image of it, we will most likely miss its essence. In fact, if we come upon something with an image of it in mind, we will never meet it. Instead we will meet our image of it. We come to it seeking confirmation. But if we simply observe it with total attention, then we may happen upon its essence–which won’t be anything we recognize as we will be encountering it for the first time.

    I don’t believe a person can get the essence of the factory through the explanations of another. It’s a lot like getting a joke versus having it explained

    • Jon Miller

      February 10, 2018 - 7:18 pm

      I would expect an executive touring Toyota to have some some mental concept or image of work class manufacturing.

      It was the essence of a production system specific to the Toyota way, not the essence of any specific factory. It is not at all analogous to telling of a joke, which relies on clever betrayals of expectations or norms.

  5. Steve Holt

    February 11, 2018 - 1:35 am

    This seems to be one of those times where the adage of “We don’t believe what we see, we see what we believe” applies. (Not sure of the origin of that. There are several variants on line, such as at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1506829 )

    People go on a tour expecting to see things…and they will return either disappointed they didn’t see things that were actually there or completely convinced that they saw things that weren’t actually there. The trick is how to get them to see what’s actually there. Assignments like Ohno’s chalk circle are one way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *