Gemba Keiei Chapter 18: Supermarket System

Taiichi Ohno starts out the chapter not quite having left the themes of his last two chapters behind. He describes how the jidoka idea that came from the Toyota textile business led to one operator running 20 or 30 machines. This thinking was transferred to the automotive side of Toyota’s business, resulting in one machine operator running more than 10 machines toward the goal of ten-fold productivity improvement. Taiichi Ohno gives credit to this concept being the very foundation of the Toyota Production System.

At this half-way point in the book I am convinced that this book is not one he intentionally set out to write about what is “Workplace Management” but instead a collections of the ideas, stories and wisdom of Taiichi Ohno. These “chapters” were probably titled by an editor at JMAM who read through the chapters, found the theme and gave each chapter its title. Or maybe it’s just that one page from the previous chapters was accidentally slipped into this one.

The second paragraph in the chapter abruptly begins discussing the origin of the supermarket system at Toyota. “Back in 1951 or 1952, one of my classmates who was the first one of us to go to America brought back many color photographs which he showed us in a slideshow.” The supermarket was such a novelty that Ohno’s classmate had taken several pictures of them. Ohno was struck by the efficiency of having people walk around with their own shopping carts to pick what they wanted and then go to the check out lady when they were ready to buy. When Toyota began doing downstream pull in 1952-1953 they called it the supermarket system.

“Rather than call it the Ohno System or the Ohno Line, calling it the Supermarket System made people accept it easier. Japanese were suckers for anything with an English name in those days.” People also saw that the idea of customers getting what you needed when you needed it was exactly like the just in time concept. The downstream process could take only as much material as they had money to buy or only as much as they had a place to store it. This was the most economical and productive method, according to Ohno.

Traditionally groceries were either delivered to your home or bought at a produce stand supplied by another distributor. This might seem convenient for the customers but it actually raised the cost, says Ohno. For example, the tofu maker would make fresh tofu and walk around with his cart blowing his flute to let people know it was available. The tofu was very fresh and delivered to your door. However if tofu was very popular in your neighborhood that day then he might run out before you could buy any, and your miso soup would be without tofu. This was not so convenient for the customer.

Customers drive to the supermarket when they want to buy something. This may seem to be less customer-focused than the direct delivery to the home. However in fact people who wanted two leeks would have to buy an entire bunch of leeks. To make it worth the delivery person’s effort they would also order a daikon radish. So customers ended up buying more and spending more than they needed right now and this was less economical.

Taiichi Ohno relates this to the factory. Often the producer (upstream) process delivers parts downstream and thinks they are providing a service when in fact they are pushing material and making the assembly area less efficient. Ohno says that converting from push to pull can easily triple productivity. Just in time (takt, flow, pull) lets you know what you need to produce, since what the next process takes away is what they need.

1 Comment

  1. Andy Wagner

    April 8, 2006 - 6:49 pm

    I have to laugh out loud at the irony of Japanese workers being “suckers for anything with an English name.”
    I thought that was a phenomenon unique to American managers!