Taiichi Ohno

Gemba Keiei, Chapter 1: The Wise Mend their Ways

By Jon Miller Updated on January 5th, 2018

Taiichi Ohno begins the chapter by saying that he doesn’t believe it’s easy to influence people on the Gemba to change. In order to get people to do kaizen, you need to convince them and help them understand. How are people convinced? There has to be some sort of reasoning behind what you are saying, and you have to confident that what you are saying is right.

How can you be confident that you are right? There is an expression that says “even a thief speaks truth a third of the time.” So you can assume that you (an average person) is right half of the time.

Ohno reflects on his days in junior high school studying the classics, such as the Analects of Confucious. He quotes two of Confucious sayings “A Wise man mends his ways” (literally, the wise change their spots like a leopard) and “Wise man, do not hesitate to reform yourself”.

If a thief is right a third of the time and an average person perhaps half of the time, a wise man is right perhaps only 70% of the time. If you insist that you are right without being reasoning it through, you will not be able to convince people.

Another saying is “Give orders in the morning, change them by evening”. This is usually given as an example of bad leadership, one who changes his mind. Ohno says that as a manager you in fact should change orders given in the morning, by evening time. After all, even the wise men mend their ways.

Ohno goes on to say that you shouldn’t give half-baked orders and then change your mind on a whim. Rather, give direction and go see if was effective. If it was not effective, admit by evening that you were wrong and change tactics.

Some countries treat long-standing laws as unchangeable, even if they don’t stand up to the logic or the needs of today because of respect to tradition or authority. Ohno says that you mustn’t operate your factory in this way, saying “it’s law” and certain things can not be changed because they have always been that way.

Ohno goes on to make the point that engineers have a reputation for being stubborn or hard-headed. Engineers would be well advised to pretend their are “the wise” and “change their spots like leopards” and reform their ways when they are wrong.

Ohno links the ability to convince and influence others to the ability to be frank and humble, to admit to those who work for you (or to the people on the Gemba) that you were mistaken. If you fear admitting you are wrong then this feeds a vicious cycle where it becomes harder and harder to admit your mistake, and in the end you lose credibility and are unable take back the bad orders you gave your troops this morning.

In order to convince people to change, and to do kaizen, you must first accept that we are all human and wrong half of the time. As a manager leading change, you are wrong half of the time, and the people who work for you are wrong half of the time, but also have something worth listening to half of the time. If this is not done, people will not respect you and listen to you.

Humility, in Ohno’s opinion, is an important factor in being able to convince people to do kaizen. The way people are persuaded to do kaizen is if you first humble yourself. When you are wrong, be willing to admit it, and others will be more willing to accept your ideas. Try it, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. Approach the act of teaching with humility and be quick to admit when you are wrong and others will learn from you.

  1. Isaac Curtis

    April 13, 2006 - 10:30 am

    Taiichi Ohno was influenced by Zen Buddhism, correct? Does the influence of Christianity in Western Culture possibly play a role in its seeming inability to accept some facets of the Toyota Way? The quote prefacing Chapter 15 in “The Toyota Way” states, “Until Senior Management gets their egos out of the way and goes to the whole team and leads them all together…senior management will continue to miss out on the brain power and extraordinary capabilities of all their employees”. A culture such as ours with a background steeped in Christianity which values the salvation (importance) of the individual (ego) may have a hard time letting go of that ego. However, a culture such as Japan’s may be able to accept these ideas more easily. Not to say the Western mind can’t find salvation in this new Way (because it is starting to now), but could this possibly be a barrier (not Christianity, but the celebration of the individual ego)?

  2. Jon Miller

    April 14, 2006 - 7:57 am

    That’s a very interesting observation. I don’t know how much Ohno was influenced by Zen Buddhism.
    I have read that the Toyoda family are Nichiren Buddhists for what that’s worth.
    American culture certainly does place a high value on individualism, which can strengthen ego and weaken humility.
    The Bible does say “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth”. Christ’s life was about sacrifice and service, which are acts of humility.
    It may be as much a matter of America’s history of rugged individualism and Westward expansion as difference in religion.

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