Habituation , Sensitization and Being Yelled At By Taiichi Ohno

Neuroplasticitiy is the ability of the human brain to rearrange its synaptic networks based on experience. This primarily affects the hippocampus, the region of the brain playing a key role in memory. In turn, memory affects behavior. Human behavior affects the majority of things that concern us on a day to day basis, and is also an important topic to anyone wishing to make lasting change.
This concept of neuroplasticity, or experience-driven alteration of synaptic structure and function, is interesting in that it begins to give us an understanding of how we learn. The Nobel laureate Eric Kandel described how this works through the neuroscience research he did with a type of sea slug called the Aplysia in his book In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. I recommend this book very highly to anyone with an interest in the topic of memory.
This neuroplasticity can be observed in the brain during what is known in classical conditioning as habituation and sensitization. Habituation is the progressive reduction of behavioral response through repetition of a stimulus. In simple terms, you learn to ignore it. Sensitization is the strengthening of a response through progressive increase in a stimulus, or in some cases a single very strong stimulus.
When we have been habituated, we learn to ignore. When we have been sensitized, even a small signal causes us to respond. It is important to understand this because we need to constantly sensitize ourselves to the conditions around us that are burdensome, bothersome, dangerous, or wasteful. When we become habituated, we learn to ignore waste. When we are sensitized, we see it and learn to respond.
Reading through Japanese books about and speaking with people who had the honor of being yelled at by Taiichi Ohno, the experience is described variously as a torrent, a serious scolding, and some even call it a terrifying experience. Part of the genius of Taiichi Ohno may have been that he was literally changing the minds of the people he yelled at through neuroplasticity and sensitization.
There is also the “chalk of terror” that Taiichi Ohno is said to have used to draw circles around managers who were oblivious (habituated) to waste. There may still be some old-timer Toyota managers out there who shudder when they see a stick of chalk.
The stand in the circle exercise is a great way to sensitize busy leaders to the problems in their organizations. It only takes one hour. Beg, steal or borrow an hour of your leaders’ time and stand them in the the circle to sensitize them. Stick of chalk optional.


  1. Shekhar

    May 31, 2007 - 11:54 pm

    This reminds the story of frog kept in kettle of cold water & heated very slowly. He gradually develops habituation to warm water till gets boiled.
    On the other hand a frog dropped in hot water jumps out quickly as he is sensitized not to accept heat
    Thanks for reading.

  2. Mike

    June 4, 2007 - 7:48 am

    It is NEVER an honor to be yelled at by someone, even a teacher. Mr. Ohno deserves much credit for his development of TPS, but he was just dead wrong to yell at someone, even a manager. I suggest you try working for someone who manages or teaches you in this style and see if you still believe in the plasticity theory. Better yet, try managing or teaching employees by yelling at them and scolding them and see how well that works for you.

  3. Jon Miller

    June 4, 2007 - 11:22 am

    Fair comment Mike.
    I did grow up in Japan, where knocks to the head and yelling were part of basic elementary school instruction for wayward boys like me.
    Japan has swung to the other extreme these days with “yutori” or “education with breathing space” system. Their level of educational performance has plummeted while crime and delinquency has soared…
    It still holds, neurologically speaking, that sometimes it takes a strong stimulus or “shock to the system” for learning to happen, if there is no time for repetition or if this has failed. This strong stimulus does not have to be yelling.
    Being yelled at by Mr. Ohno would have been extremely unpleasant at the time, but an honor in hindsight for having been able to meet and be taught by the man. Yelling wasn’t his only teaching approach, and I’ve read that he only yelled at those who he thought were worth teaching.

  4. Barry

    June 5, 2007 - 9:04 pm

    I would have accepted the Honor of being yelled at by Taiichi Ohno. It’s a little too politically correct to say that it is NEVER an honor. That may sound nice today in America, but I doubt that kind of attitude would have allowed Onosan to prevail during his struggles to create the system. He was outnumbered significantly by workers and managers who thought that Mass Production (The American System) was more efficient. I suspect that this is also one of the reasons that it is hard for American Companies to replicate Toyota’s system and success. It just requires too much discipline and hard work. There are too many ingrained and institutionalized systems in American companies that easily defeat a lesser leader. Many times an American company won’t have someone with the will of a Taiichi Ono or the long-term leadership of the Toyoda family.
    Here is a quote from Onosan’s last book that explains just how difficult it was for the Ono Production System to be established. Considering the struggles that he surely endured for many years, I certainly don’t fault him for his occasional yelling. It wasn’t easy for him to overcome what had been taught by the People who were suppose to be right. It’s hard to break through when so many have been taught to think the wrong way. Warren Buffett is another example of someone who thought for themselves and basically proved the Academics to be completely wrong.
    “Based on my experiences in the production plant, I know that in the beginning, people tended to resist change, whether large or small, making the atmosphere unconducive to implementing change. However, if the employees were frantic, we were crazy!
    In the end, we forced our way through and persuaded the others.
    The whole process of developing the Toyota production system took place this way. From the late 1940’s to the early 1960’s, with everyone in opposition, it was called the “abominable Ohno Production System.” People refused to call it the “Toyota Production System.” When I confirmed the validity of the system and tried to implement it, everyone objected vehemently. To overcome this resistance, I had to quarrel and fight. And since the numbers were against me, I had no choice – I went crazy.
    This differs from an “ambitious spirit.”
    Ono, Taiichi (Just in Time for Today and Tomorrow)