Gemba Keiei by Taiichi Ohno, Chapter 29: Become a Reliable Boss

“I never get angry at the workers. However, I will get very angry at supervisors and above.” Some people say that Taiichi Ohno was not a very nice man. Ohno had a reputation for being very tough on his students, and some even call him a monster. I have never met him, but I have been yelled at by plenty of Japanese kaizen masters, and I think many of them are misunderstood. The following sentence may come as a surprise to those who label Ohno as not suffering fools well.

“It’s convenient for me to get angry at them when I am on the gemba. It’s noisy out there, and they don’t really hear what I am saying. When I yell at the supervisor on the gemba, the workers feel sympathy for them. This makes it easier for the supervisor to give the workers instruction.”

Taiichi Onho says that rather than taking the supervisor aside and scold them, you should do it in a public place. Preferably this is a noisy gemba so no one will hear clearly what you are saying. That way you can yell as loud as you like. Ohno is saying that for people to be relentless in their pursuit of waste reduction and kaizen, you have to scold them relentlessly.

Even if the person scolded doesn’t really understand why they are being scolded, the effect on the workers of seeing their boss scolded makes them more open to being instructed in the future. There is a fundamental assumption of teamwork here, as well as a clear respect for authority and seniority that may be lacking in many organizations outside of Japan. Even if you fancy yourself a Lean Master, don’t try this at your factory without thinking deeply about it first.

Taiichi Ohno said that when he was first promoted from supervisor to manager, his boss told him never to scold supervisors in front of their workers. Ohno says that scolding supervisor about an actual mistake may make him angry, while being shouted at in a loud voice is actually less stressful. “Even though everyone hates being scolded in public at first, I think it makes it easier for supervisors to communicate with their workers.”

This only works if you have a long working relationship between the supervisors and workers on the gemba. Ohno recommends that supervisors and team leaders not be changed so often. People in the factory need a reliable boss. He says promoting people from supervisor to production manager is okay because it is just an expansion of the area of supervision, but it is not so good when they are promoted and moved to another factory every 1 or 2 years.

“I feel sorry for blue collar workers. They need reliable bosses. If the reliable people are frequently moved to other positions, they can no longer be relied upon.” Says Ohno. “On the other hand white collar workers each think they are on their own path. They do not rely on each other. That’s why when it’s they hit retirement age we have to find them another place to work.” This may seem like a puzzling statement, but it’s one that’s very revealing of how Japanese companies work.

Taiichi Ohno sees the lack of reliable bosses due to the turnover of factory supervisors and managers as a contributor to low morale and low productivity. The factory loses a certain vitality when the people know that even if they work hard to support them, their best supervisors and bosses will promoted and moved to another factory and they will start all over again with someone new. This makes people think that their bosses will get promoted no matter what, so they might as well live day by day in the factory. This erodes performance in the long haul.

“One time I gave an engineer who worked on the gemba some grief. I summoned him, and a lady from the office went to tell him the factory manager was calling for him. So the engineer came running to the office. I scolded him and told him that if I really needed to see him I would go the gemba. I told him if he could come running to the office to see me that means the people on the gemba don’t rely on him.”

Ohno’s point was that the engineer should have had so many requests for help from the people in the factory that he had no time to spare to meet the factory manager. If the engineer had time to drop his work and run to see the factory manager, the people in the factory didn’t depend on him enough.

Ohno gave him the following advice, “When you are out observing on the gemba, do something to help them. If you do, people will come to expect that you can help them and will look forward to seeing you again on the gemba. Eventually the workers will stop you and ask you for help in making a difficult process easier.”

Now I ask all of the engineers and continuous improvement people who read this: how long does it take you to walk 100 meters in your gemba? This is a good Lean benchmark. Measure it sometime and set a goal to improve it. But improving it does not mean walking faster. Ohno says:

“It should take you hours to walk 100 meters each time you enter the factory. If it takes you no time at all to walk 100 meters that means no one is relying on you.”

When you are a reliable boss or a reliable engineer or a reliable kaizen leader and you are helping people by solving their problems and making their work easier, you will get a reputation and people will ask you for help whenever they see you. When your average walking speed on the gemba is no more than 50 meters per hours, you may have become a reliable boss.