Kaizen and the Way of the Ninja

By Jon Miller Updated on May 13th, 2017

Taiichi Ohno was fond of saying “use the way of the ninja, not of mathematical calculations”. He had fun with language even as he left the people he scolded puzzled by his words. Perhaps in today’s language he might say “when doing kaizen be a ninja, not an accountant” or perhaps even “get it done by hook or by crook, don’t fret about cost absorption!” What did he mean by ninjutsu – the art of the ninja? I am not sure that even his students really understood him, since whenever questioned, these sensei gave me the “think about it for yourself!” rejoinder.

Ninjas were the superheroes of my youth, and oddly, also of the youth of the Western world today thanks to Japanese cartoons. We pored over books to teach ourselves the ways of the ninja. We would hide, throw wooden darts, and fight with our opposing ninja faction at every opportunity. Whatever the attraction of these medieval Japanese spies, assassins and saboteurs, it seems to cross generations and cultures.

Thinking back on the mythology of the ninja, there are several points that strike me as examples of the kaizen mindset. The young ninja was taught to leap tall buildings by first jumping over a sprouting seedling. Easy, sign me up for ninja school, you might say. Well, each day this seedling grew taller until one day the ninja master required that you leapt over the giant spruce. Impossible? Not according to ninja lore, and very much in line with the idea of daily continuous improvement resulting in huge performance improvements over time.

The ninja was crafty, because unlike the shogun who could muster swords, samurai and spear-toting conscripts, he had to use limited resources. The ninja did his or her work with what he could carry on his person. Often this was very little. He was agile, quick and quiet. He did not face the military machine head-on but snuck in through the cracks in their defenses to spy, disrupt or worse.

One favorite activity as kids was to build wooden swords sturdy enough to let us not only fight with them but also use them as a stepping tool for leaping over fences. The ninja was often depicted placing his sword against a wall, stepping on the oval-shaped guard on the hilt of the sword, and making his escape over the wall. You weren’t real ninja material unless you could run, place your sword, step and leap over a fence while pulling your sword up after you with the attached cord. A samurai would never dishonor the spirit of his ancestors by stepping on his sword – allowing the ninja his escape. As in kaizen, you think outside the box and get the job done with the tools at hand.

Sometimes what your lean transformation effort needs is stealth, not overwhelming promotion and popular support from leadership and the rest of the management bureaucracy. Existing power structures and cultures do not like to be changed, and the ninja knows this. The ninja does not fight the battle directly, but rather wages a war of stealth, an information war. In practical business terms this may mean building success cases in smaller ways before implementing across the board, or spending time finding out those who will not support kaizen in your organization, and dealing with them. The work of the successful ninja will be noticed only when it is too late for the opponent to make a defense. Sometimes you may need to “ninja” your kaizen efforts.

The word “ninja” is made up from two characters: “nin” and “ja”. The second means “one who” or “person”. The first character in “ninja” can mean “to endure” or “to patiently bear with” something or “avoid being seen”. Endurance and patience are certainly necessarily for kaizen and for long-term success in any venture. Oddly, sometimes it may also benefit us to avoid being seen. Ninja kaizen: two of the coolest words in the Japanese languages and another way we fight the agents of resistance to change.

  1. Ron Pereira

    March 31, 2008 - 7:01 am

    This was the perfect post to launch my Monday.
    I feel like going out and kicking some people in the stomach… I mean going out and doing kaizen!
    Seriously, this was really great work Jon.

  2. veeru

    March 31, 2008 - 8:04 am

    At the expense of being censored, I am posting this comment,
    This happened in Toyota Kirloskar Motor (Bangalore, India).
    A Supplier rep was hesitatingly giving out VA/VE ideas as part of cost cutting, to encourage him, Director of Purchase said “Toyota will do anything for cost cutting, expect rape and murder, so do not hesitate”.
    After reading this blog, I think Director was encouraging the Supplier to be like a Ninja.

  3. Veeru

    March 31, 2008 - 1:56 pm

    In my excitement, I have mis-spelt “except” as “expect”. I am sorry, if it created wrong idea.
    Here is the corrected one,
    This happened in Toyota Kirloskar Motor (Bangalore, India).
    A Supplier rep was hesitatingly giving out VA/VE ideas as part of cost cutting, to encourage him, Director of Purchase said “Toyota will do anything for cost cutting, except rape and murder, so do not hesitate”.
    After reading this blog, I think Director was encouraging the Supplier to be like a Ninja.

  4. mike

    April 1, 2008 - 9:29 pm

    How does murder cut costs?

  5. Luke

    April 8, 2008 - 9:09 am

    For all its downside, murder does reduce headcount. Hey Jon, I got a gift certificate from a tattoo shop – where would a real ninja wear his ninja tattoo?

  6. Jon Miller

    April 8, 2008 - 3:34 pm

    The point of Director’s comment in Veeru’s post was that Toyota will NOT murder to reduce cost, but will go to great length.
    All I know about tattoos is that they keep you from enjoying the hot springs of Japan so they never interested me.

  7. Joseph

    May 16, 2010 - 1:12 pm

    Having done karate for 6 years under a great Sensei I think this is saying use Ying & Yang ( Hard & Soft ) as your approach to reaching your goal.
    If you are launching 5S lets say and one or two people in the group are not willing to play. Do not take them on with disaplin. This could cause a general revolt. Go around them and keep the group moving forward. Use guile to make the team reach their goal. You can always pick them up later or just leave them to wallow on thier own. They may not be bad people but we will all resist change it may take them longer to see the light. I like people who have strong convictions. Once they join in they can be your best pupil.
    There are harder battles to be won with Supervisors, Managers & Directors. Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.
    There are more ways to kill a pig than stuffing it with saw dust.
    He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.
    You do not have to fight to win if you have cunning, truth & respect in you tool box.

  8. Joseph

    May 16, 2010 - 1:44 pm

    Luke, Mike & Jon.
    In opinion the comment to murder is a pure form of waste. I know many companies that having trained people they keep them alive and work them to death.
    Many companies do this by setting the standard by timing the fastest operator. This should be the goal but we can not all run 100 metres as fast as Usain Bolt. As an Industrial Engineer I believe in a fair days work for a fair days pay. I know what fair is believe me. LEAN but fair.

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