Standards, Abnormality and the Ideal

By Jon Miller Updated on May 29th, 2017

The topic of warusa kagen led to some interesting further thought. The following statements are all true:
1. When work is performed in the absence of a standard, this is an abnormality
2. When standards exist but are not being followed, this is an abnormality
3. When standards exist and are being followed, this is an abnormality
Most would agree with the first two statements, but not the third.
The first statement is true because standards exist a priori for a given process. The management simply have not recognized them or made them visible. There is a correct or appropriate amount of inventory to keep the process in the current condition running on time, for example. So the fact that this standard is not established is an abnormality.
The second statement is true because when a standard is established, we are saying “this is the normal method”, so not following it is by definition an abnormality.
Let’s take the example of inventory:
The third statement is true because even if a standard is being followed, this is merely adherence to a standard, the standard is flawed when compared against what is desirable.
The Toyota notion that standards are temporary things and not absolutes is at work here. There is always higher goal, referred to as “the ideal”. Kaizen challenges people to go to gemba to directly observe the current condition, understand the warusa kagen, imagine the ideal condition and improve towards it.
So a more user-friendly way of expressing this may be to say that there is abnormality versus the standard and abnormality versus the ideal. For the sake of simplicity let’s say there are standards, abnormality and the ideal.
You may ask “Once you achieve zero inventory, aren’t you done?” It might appear that you have achieved “the ideal” process with respect to inventory. However, even this condition is abnormal. When you question deeply why inventory is a waste, it comes down to inventory turns and cash flow. So now if zero inventory is abnormal, what is the target condition? Less than zero inventory must be negative inventory.
Is the notion of negative inventory ridiculous? Not really. It is not uncommon these days for large OEMs such as Toyota, Dell or Boeing to get their money upfront from their customers, buy components from suppliers on net 30 or net 60 terms. This means that in real cash terms they have something called negative inventory turns. Less than zero inventory.
Could we extend the idea from zero inventory to negative inventory to other areas? How about from zero defects to negative defects? Or zero accidents? How about negative accidents? A workplace that actually heals the sick and makes healthy people healthier, because it is closer to the ideal process. Now that’s something that makes doing kaizen for the rest of our lives worthwhile.

  1. Andrea

    May 4, 2007 - 9:47 am

    Wow! This will be the second post of yours that I’ve linked to in my blog. Thanks for the mental firestarters!
    You’ve really helped me crystallize why I’m unhappy with my current work situation. I have great respect and belief in the core business of my company, but I’m very frustrated by the tolerance/expectation/acceptance of waste, and the constant “we don’t have time to think” kinds of attitudes I run into trying to improve that business. I want to not only respect the core business of the company, I want to respect the company itself. As in – how it handles everything else – like people. I don’t like that there is a division between the business and the people who are making the business (if that makes any sense).
    I want this to be a place that pushes to healing the sick and makes healthy people healthier. That makes learning instead of training. That isn’t scared to have people be better than they are. And that figures out how to replace fear with hope.
    Now the question really becomes, how can I start making that happen? 🙂
    Thanks for the boost!

  2. Siony

    May 4, 2007 - 1:42 pm

    Another WOW!
    I just love how you present standards, abnormality and ideal…
    Also I’m getting the hang of your concept on “A workplace that actually heals the sick and makes healthy people healthier…”
    I will keep visiting this site…thanks, you inspire me…

  3. Jon Nett

    May 8, 2007 - 5:12 am

    Great post, Jon. Way to emphasize that the true goal of kaizen is to continue to improve the standard until we reach the theoretical ideal. However, I am not sure I agree with the “less is more” philosophy. If zero is great, is negative necessarily better?
    Isn’t negative inventory also muda? Large OEMS hold orders to buy components in bulk. This defies the “batch size of 1” or “1 piece flow” philosophy of lean, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t the target be to pull from shipping through assembly and procurement. (Even Toyota has not reached the goal of a true pull system since some of the stamping and body components must be built in batches.) Allowing negative inventory to move too far from zero creates waiting, longer lead times, and runs the risk of throwing off the work balance and creating overproduction. From the customer standpoint, a negative inventory is a backlog and waiting.
    Are negative defects a good thing? One way I can think of to generate negative scrap is by reworking defective parts to correct the defect. While this reduces wasted material by eliminating scrap parts, it is over-processing because it would have been better to make the parts correctly the first time. I suppose if quality is defined as meeting the customer’s demands, then you can create negative defects by exceeding those demands. But holding tighter tolerances for the sake of holding tighter tolerances is also over-processing, not to mention that by holding tighter tolerances than specified, you may accidentally create a poor quality part. Example: a customer specifies a maximum surface roughness on a sealing surface. To exceed customer demand the supplier puts a mirror finish on the part, and because the part’s surface is TOO smooth, the part is difficult to assemble or the assembly leaks. By trying to surpass the customer’s surface roughness spec, the supplier failed to meet the design demands for assembly and leaking. (The customer really should specify a roughness range.)
    I do like the idea of negative accidents, but I can’t figure out a possible way to create a negative accident. We can’t count people healing from work related injuries as negative accidents, because the fact that they are healing implies that they were injured. We can’t count near misses as negative accidents, because technically, they are near hits. Perhaps if we counted safety or ergonomic kaizen ideas implemented… but wouldn’t it be easier to set a positive standard for safety kaizen implementation? Still, the safety standard should be continuously improved. If the current target is no accidents a day, the goal should be to increase the target to no accidents a week, to no accidents a month… to the theoretical no accidents EVER.
    I am in agreement that once a standard is met, the target should be improved until perfection is met. The philosophical question that is sometimes the problem is, ”What is perfection?” One important motivator for kaizen is that if you can do it well, your competition can find a way to do it better, so you better beat them to it.

  4. Jon Miller

    May 8, 2007 - 10:47 am

    Good point about the negative inventory versus aiming for zero inventory. Negative inventory can just be an accounting game, pushing the burden to suppliers in some cases.
    I’ve been thinking of the negative safety incidents (a healing workplace) and I think this is actually quite achievable. Here are some more thoughts.

  5. John

    January 7, 2010 - 4:28 am

    I think the turns in you example aren’t negative…it’s infinite! and counter some other points, if your business is truly (and I really mean truly) operating this way and STILL meeting customer requirements, (meaning the customer isn’t having to wait longer than they want) how can it possibly get any better?

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